Last weekend I began to notice a sore area around my #18 molar. That’s the tooth on the far back left side of the mouth. It would flare up and recede in relation to cold or sweets and I knew, this is not good.
By Tuesday it was genuinely sore and getting worse. That afternoon it was on the verge of constant pain and I called my dentist. They said I could come in the next morning for a look-see.
At that point going out to run or ride was the last thing on my mind. But I did get in the pool for a 1200 yard workout and it actually felt good. The flow of water across my relaxed me, and by proxy the tooth seemed to hurt less.
But by Wednesday morning all I wanted was to get relief. I knew something was wrong deeply with the tooth because I’d actually gotten a second (preview) opinion with my wife’s dentist Tuesday afternoon. She loves his work and he agreed to see me. Of course he wanted to know as much as he could about my mouth and I was as forthright as I could be.
In so many ways our dental history is a record of who we are as a person. Archaeologists and paleontologists can tell quite a bit about the lifestyle of people by examining their teeth. I well recall hearing about the problems experienced by the Anasazi Native Americans who ground their corn on stone bowls and wore down their teeth as a result of grinding both stone and grain as they ate their meals.
My teeth have been through a gauntlet of treatments. They came in crooked as hell as a pre-teen. The two front teeth pointed in at each other. That led to a prescription for braces.
But the summer before I was supposed to get braces installed on my wayward toofers I was practicing at third during baseball practice when twilight fell and got I struck in the mouth by a line drive that was supposed to be a grounder. The baseball hit me straight in the mouth and knocked out my right front tooth. I didnt know it at the time, but the tooth was hanging there by the nerve like the shaking corpse of a condemned and dying man.
My father drove me to the dentist stat. He anchored the tooth back in with a metal stake and it held. But then the tooth died, turned gray and lasted well into my late twenties before having it replaced with a fake tooth that I also had replaced at some point along the line.
So some of this dental history was not my own fault. And those braces that I ultimately did get? They straightened by teeth but required the wildest combination of metal and rubber bands you’ve ever seen. The orthodontist even glued a black dot of adhesive to an incisor and strapped three rubber bands across my choppers to yank the right side of my mouth into place.
I was a strange combination of persistently withering personal esteem and determined self-awareness at that stage of life. Thus I told my orthodontist when he asked me how I felt when getting braces, “I’ll just have to change my self-image.”
The day that my braces finally came off was a relief and a joy. I recall that I girl I like told me how nice I looked. In the end, that’s what it’s all about to a kid in his teens.
Beyond those early years when my teeth seemed indestructible and cavities were rare, visits to the dentist were largely positive affairs. But the ins and outs of life in my twenties left me with a raft of problems that turned into decay. Ultimately those led to the breakdown of a tooth or two including one that fractured on a chomp of ice and required emergency repair.
There are aspects of my dental care that I certainly wish had gone differently in life. During those years when my late wife was so sick, all our money and attention went into helping her get well. The resources we had were focused on that. I brushed and flossed (most days) but the regimen was not idea. Gingivitis caught up with me, and pain at times too.
Somehow I came into possession of a handheld dental mirror and used to look around inside my mouth. But you can’t much tell what’s going on in there if you’re not trained in dentistry. Our teeth are hard, multilayered structures with sensitive roots down the middle, the exoskeletons of our inner existence.
And when infection sets into a tooth, it can affect your entire health pattern. I’ve experienced that. When a sore tooth was repaired my longtime dentist years back said, “You’re going to feel better after this is fixed.”
I’ve experienced other types of infections that took over my life temporarily. One was the result of a sliver that pushed some nasty bug into the middle of my left middle finger. The other was the result of our cat nipped me on the hand that led to cellulitis. Both are proof that infections are just opportunists waiting to attack the human body for their own propagation. That’s the strange balance of health and evolution in action. We need bacteria to balance our guts and yet, during that cat nip episode, the antibiotics I took to treat the cellulitis in my had killed off my good gut bacteria. I contracted c.Diff and it was beyond awful. These are the tarsnakes of life. What heals you can also kill you.
There is no real excuse for not taking care of our teeth. Nor is this a complaint that life has somehow treated me unfairly. Just like training on a running track, we sometimes travel the same circles hoping for a different result. Do we brush our teeth well enough? Are we flossing out the food that sits there and creates bacteria pockets and eats away the enamel. Dentists preach and preach but there we go with the same old half-assed habits that lead to decay and destruction of our teeth. And in some ways, our whole health.
Like so many things about myself, my teeth are neither perfect, nor perfectly healthy. With age the orthodontic treatments from years ago have given in to the shifting forces of time. Like the advent of crepey skin and facial wrinkles, there are some things that are inevitable in this world. I’ve held off some of those as long as I can, but it’s also why I’m keeping this photo of my smooth and fit legs forever.
But I’m grateful that yesterday a real pro got hold of my mouth and fixed the rotten root issues in my aging mouth. He was confident and competent and did not mess around. “I do three thousands of these a year,” the amazing endodontist told me as he numbed me up and cleaned out the offending roots, thereby saving the tooth for the foreseeable future.
When reality bites, it pays to call in the experts. At the least they’ll introduce you to the facts about your situation. And at best they’ll cure what ails you. We really can’t ask for much more than that.