Historically, I’ve been so terrified of the dentist I would have panic attacks at the thought of going — I mean that literally. I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up, or possibly die a horrible dental chair death to a symphony of drills. This complicated things when I finally got dental insurance and had an appointment where they told me I’d need about $30,000 of work beyond what was covered. That was when I was 22.
If you’re similarly terrified of the dentist, I found that being trapped in the elevator at my dentist office really helped put things in perspective, so try that. Otherwise, my tips for overcoming dental paralysis for major procedures are as follows:
1. Manage your own pain. Accept that there’s no need for you to feel anything beyond the novocaine shot. The minute you do, ask for more novocaine. Because of the panic, I metabolize that stuff like crazy, and have to ask for up to two reapplications per procedure. Raise a finger so they know to pause and tell them you have sensation. A good dentist is uncomfortable when you are, and they’ll take care of it or explain your options.
2. Close your eyes. You don’t need to see the implements. Especially not the needle. Breathe.
3. Pay attention to your body. Note how your entire body is clenched like a vise? Concentrate on relaxing your muscles one and at time, from the toes up. Unclench your jaw. Unfurrow your brow. If you feel yourself panicking, start again from the toes.
4. Wear headphones. Loud, soothing music you rarely listen to in real life. No need to sabotage your favorite tunes with dental recall. Ask your dentist to squeeze your hand if he or she needs something.
5. Find an escape. If your dentist doesn’t already have one, ask him or her to hang a poster of a soothing scene (the ocean or something) on the ceiling above the chair. That way, if you do open your eyes, there’s something non medical to look at.
6. Care for yourself. When you’re back at home, ice your jaw and rinse gently with warm saltwater whenever you’re in pain. This controls swelling and infection, both of which cause a lot of the post-procedural pain. If they gave you painkillers, take them the first day even if you don’t think you need them. If they gave you antibiotics, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take every last one of them.
7. Take it easy. Trashy magazines, warm broth, ice cream.
What did I forget? Tips for making your dentists appointment more bearable? Fill us in.
If you’re just joining us and you’re into maladies, welcome! “Get my health in order” is on my life list. Here’s Part I where I outline the obstacles, and Part II where I explain that acupuncture does more than clean your aura. Please join us for this installment of Autoimmune On Parade, wherein I outline the expensive and inconvenient things I’ve endured to obtain Vicodin.
I’m eating lunch as I type this, and it’s kind of a miracle I can chew. Long time readers will be familiar with my dental escapades. (If not, you’ll want to rent my critically acclaimed “Dental Escapades XXX Get drilled.”) But to be candid, these last six months are the first time I’ve chewed without pain in about 15 years.
Take your tongue and trace all the teeth in your mouth that feel like molars, even the little ones. Now. With one or two exceptions, I’ve had root canals on every one of those teeth. That’s because my body has been attacking them. Before I knew this, I just assumed other people must be maniacs about tooth care. “Thanks for lunch! I’m just going to pop in the bathroom and floss before we go.”
My dentists reinforced this idea by shaking their heads and sighing with concern whenever they peered into my mouth. Two years ago I wrote:
When I go to the dentist, which I do every few minutes, they look at me like I’ve been sleeping with hard candy in my mouth, and waking to a hearty breakfast of dried apricots dipped in marshmallow fluff.
Your Body as an Ecosystem
At my first appointment with the acupuncturist, I told her I had a tooth that had been mildly infected for years, but recently had begun to bother me more. She insisted I make an appointment to take care of it immediately. I still don’t totally know why, but acupuncturists really wig when something is going wrong with your mouth.
So I went to the dentist, where I’d been eight months before, and he sent me immediately to an oral surgeon, who scheduled me for emergency surgery the next day.
I’m embarrassed to admit how numb I was to my health, what bad care I took of myself, but here goes. Before the surgery I’d had a toothache for a few weeks (nothing unusual there), but the pressure increased until it was unbearable for a day or two, and then it mysteriously subsided. I figured it was healing. What had actually happened was the infection had broken through to my sinus cavity, thereby relieving the pressure as the infection presumably flowed toward my brain.
Oral Surgery A-Go-Go
So I went through about a year of bone grafting. Healing. Having a screw placed into my jaw. Healing. Having an implant placed on the screw. Healing.
But here’s the upside. Because I had several recent X-rays on file thanks to all this oral surgery, and because I was starting to realize my body was an ecosystem thanks to acupuncture, I finally figured out that the problem wasn’t my now-near-obsessive oral hygiene habits.
One night, I was flossing a perfectly healthy tooth, and when I pulled the floss out, a shard of my tooth came with it. I shuddered, whimpered, and called the dentist.
At my appointment the next day I said, “I should tell you, this. I think I have an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder. I think my body might be attacking my teeth. Please check my x-rays.” He did, and he agreed. It’s called dental resorption, and this is what I wrote about it last summer:
My teeth were just minding their own business, masticating, ripping open plastic packaging. Then my teeth glanced over at my immune system, and my immune system was all, “What are you staring at?” My teeth were like, “Nothing, man.” And BAM! My life is a Stephen King novella where I angered some mystic and now I’m paying in teeth.
The excellent team at my dentist’s office went from slightly stern and instructive, to empathetic and concerned. They’d always been great, but it was a palpable shift. I asked my hygenist about all that flossing instruction. “Did you just think I was a meth addict?” I said. She smiled.
“Well. You never know.”
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about my joints, diet, exercise, and supplements. And then my friends, we will check this mother off the list, and return to our discussions of ice cream and adventure sports. See you then.
Yesterday, once again, I found myself at the periodontist’s with a gas mask over my face. As you may recall, I don’t particularly enjoy laughing gas, as I am a control-oriented sort, but the alternative is usually less appealing in these instances.
I took a few deep breaths, and began to hear the telltale electric beat deep in my ears. The periodontist leaned in with his gloved hands, and they seemed absurdly big. I thought, “This is the only non-sexual scenario in which a man has ever had his fingers in my mouth.”
I laughed. Then I blushed. Then I became hyper aware of my tongue, and spent the next hour wracked with concern about accidentally doing something untoward. In conclusion, laughing gas is wasted on me.