Technology giving dentists ‘unfair’ advantage


Though I don’t share in the general loathing of the dentist office that’s the norm among most of my friends and acquaintances, there are parts of my visits I find frustrating.

My dentist: a nice guy who’s known me since I was a wee nipper. He’s been a family friend ever since my aunt started a job as a nanny for his daughter back in the mid-1980s. My twin brother and I were only a few months older than she was, and we became regular playmates.

Naturally, my parents took us to him for our first dentist appointments, and I’ve been a regular patient at his office ever since. And in that time, he and his office staff have trained me well. I make a visit to the dentist every six months as part of the normal routine, and I have a pretty good set of teeth. I don’t view dental cleanings as torture.

Fillings, however...

The “good teeth” gene has actually worked against me in this case. I didn’t have my first cavity until middle school, so I didn’t get to meet the dental drill when I was young and easy to manipulate. Because of this, I developed a pretty severe dread of it.

Going “under the drill” probably isn’t that bad to someone who had the occasional filling as they grew up. It’s old news to them. But I soaked up too many horror stories as an impressionable kid, and didn’t have any personal experience to balance it with.

If there’s one thing people love to complain about, it’s the dentist. Mock shudders, tales of needles and drills, numbing agents that don’t work... I heard them all. My father had an especially memorable root canal when I was younger, and I — a fly on the wall — got to listen in terror as he described it to every single member of our family.

I’m the same way with bees. I was never stung as a child, but I watched my brother have nasty encounters several times. Whenever he was stung, parts of his anatomy swelled up like balloons to at least twice their normal size (or so it seemed) in reaction. He was stung on the ear once — it didn’t seem appropriate at the time, but I wish I’d taken a picture.

Being stung seemed so terrible that I developed a fear of bees. And in the same way, I came to dread the dentist’s drill. All those stories took root. At the dentist’s, I would hear the drill start up in another exam room, and my palms would start to sweat. The first time I needed to be drilled to fill a cavity, I thought I was going to die.

Obviously, I didn’t. But by the time I walked out of the room I felt like a wrung-out dishrag, I had been strung so tight throughout the whole ordeal. They had to numb me twice, because I felt a cold sensation as the drill started boring into my tooth — and it freaked me out so badly I couldn’t continue. I was sure that any moment, that vague cold feel would flare into brilliant, searing pain. (And for all I know, it could have.)

To summarize: If my dentist tells me I have a cavity, I don’t care what anyone says — it’s the end of the world.

This is a very motivating incentive to brush and floss my teeth every day. It also gives me a very real sense of sympathy for my dog whenever it’s time to Dremel his toenails.

In the battle of me vs. the dental drill, I was winning the war. I went for years with no cavities. And then my dentist got a new toy to play with — a laser scanner that measures the density of the first couple millimeters of a tooth’s surface. This fantastic piece of technology can find a cavity before it ever shows up on an X-ray or on the surface of the tooth.

I loathe this machine so, so much.

There are two parts: a box that contains the gizmos and makes the whole thing work, and a wand attached with a cord. The hygienist presses the little wand against your tooth, and the box displays numbers that correspond with your tooth’s density.

If the tooth is fine, there’s no reaction. But if the number is high, the box emits a mechanical whine. If the problem is borderline, it gives a low-pitched growl. But the worse your tooth is, the higher the pitch goes, until you want to grind your teeth — but you can’t, because you’d pulverize the hygienist’s hand.

It’s a tattletale machine. My dentist loves it. I’d like to — accidentally, of course — smash it with a sledgehammer a few dozen times.

I’ve been told this device actually helps keep my teeth in good shape, because it catches cavities while they’re small, before a lot of work needs to be done to the tooth to clear out the problem. I’ve heard this propaganda a dozen times — it may even be true! — but I still call it cheating.


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