Friday, August 23, 2013

Say Ah

By good fortune rather than by good habits, my health has been pretty robust throughout my life (to date) with two exceptions, and the two may be related. When I was an infant I picked up a serious respiratory infection from some visitor to the household and was treated with the new wonder antibiotic of the day: tetracycline. It did the trick, but there are side effects which weren’t known until a generation had grown up with them. Tetracycline given to anyone under the age of 8 can stain the permanent teeth and might (or might not – the early illnesses themselves could be the culprit) be associated with other dental problems. Whether there is a connection or not, since that first bad resp-infection, my dentists have been the only health practitioners to drain my wallet. Against expectation, given all the work done in my mouth, I’ve so far kept all 32 teeth, but only thanks to a quantity of silver, gold, and porcelain that presently exceeds my remaining natural enamel. No year goes by without drills, filling(s), and/or a cap. Yesterday, I had another old favorite: the root canal.

If bioengineering gets a lot better, let me suggest importing into humans whatever shark genes are responsible for letting sharks grow new replacement teeth throughout their lives. This seems a more elegant solution than trying to make our choppers last 80 years when they rarely (without significant intervention) are good for 40. Of course, that would mean we’d always be teething. No wonder sharks are cranky.

In modern dentistry, the biggest pain comes at the checkout desk when one is handed the bill. To the refrain, “Do you have insurance?” which I’ve heard at the desk for decades, my answer was and is that I don’t. Individual dental policies cost as much as paying the dentist directly (naturally enough – insurance companies are for-profit institutions), and, since I am self-employed, any employer-provided coverage still would be paid entirely by… well, me. Historically, though, the pain delivered by the profession was more than financial. It’s only in the past century that effective local anesthetics have been available.

By and large, Paleolithic skeletons have very good teeth. So do modern hunter-gatherers – at least the ones who are primarily carnivorous. Eskimos who persist in a traditional diet of virtually all meat generally have superb teeth. Evidence of tooth decay soars in skeletons younger than 10,000 years old, the time when agriculture began. Whatever benefits the rise of farming may have brought to ancient people, the switch to a grain diet proved very hard on the teeth. Dentistry appeared quickly thereafter. Nine 9000-year-old skulls from Pakistan have been found with perfectly drilled teeth. We even know the tool used (see picture below) because a flint drill bit was found at one of the sites. We don’t know what was used to fill the holes, but (much later) ancient Mayans used gold and gems. Unlike the Mayans, however, the ancient Pakistani dentists drilled into molars, so it’s doubtful that ornament was the point. The oldest discovered intact filling is in the left top canine tooth of a 6,500-year-old skull found in Slovenia; the tooth was filled with beeswax, which I imagine had to be topped up regularly. The teeth of ancient Egyptians were terrible. Not only were caries a problem from the high-carb diet, but ancient remains show severe enamel attrition, possibly from grit, sand, and straw mixed in with the grain. Unsurprisingly, the Egyptians from an early date had skilled dentists who filled cavities and wired in bridges. Full dentures (made from human and animal teeth) date back at least to 700 BC in Etruria.

These Novocain-free ancient treatments sound distinctly unpleasant. Did the dentists tie their patients down for some of these procedures? Somehow I’m feeling a little less grumpy about the hole in my checkbook now.

Flint Drill

Perhaps ancient dentists had patients like Jack Nicholson. Scene from Little Shop of Horrors (1960)


  1. I always find it interesting how tooth pain is used in movies, usually as a torture device. The feeling is common to most viewers and therefore highly relatable. Even the sounds of a dental drill are used to provoke dread in sound design. Just rewatched one of my favorite episodes of MST3K "Space Mutiny". There's a scene where the villain uses his laser torture device, that sounds just like a dental drill and shoots into the victims mouth.

    I still haven't seen Corman's version of "Little Shop of Horror". My little sister loved the musical version and played that sucker to death. So I've just avoided all incarnations for years. But Steve Martin's take on the dentist song still makes me smile, "I thrill when I drill a bicuspid!"

    1. I can understand the lasting impact of overexposure -- kids are relentless and love to watch the same movie again and again. I liked Corman's LS of H when I saw it on TV as a kid, so when the musical opened off-Broadway at the Orpheum in Greenwich Village (it was not an instant hit) in 1982, I saw it right away. Funny stuff. Corman's was written in 2 days and filmed just as fast in order to beat the implementation of new rules about actors' residuals.

      Lasers don't seem like a bad idea for drilling.