Saturday, September 20, 2008


When my mother was in her mid to late 20's, she had beautiful, straight, white teeth. Before she turned 30, she had no teeth at all and was wearing dentures. She lost her teeth to what was called "Pyorrhea" at that time and is now more generally referred to as "periodontal disease."

Since her teeth were perfect, this came as quite a shock to her and it was very painful having all of her teeth removed and her jawbone scraped of disease all at once. She relayed a story on multiple occasions about how she kept her face frozen with ice packs after the procedure because she saw a woman who had had a similar unfortunate experience whose face was nearly unrecognizable because of the swelling.

You'd think that someone who had endured what she had would have reared her children to take very good care of their teeth since she knew the suffering one might endure if disease struck. As a matter of fact, the opposite was the case. As normal kids who dislike spending time pursuing any sort of hygiene routine, we resisted brushing our teeth and she quickly gave up and didn't enforce any sort of oral hygiene behavior. This resulted in two gaping holes in my lower jaw where the second molar from the back was ripped out on both sides because of cavities when I was about age 10 and 12. My family was too poor to go the rebuilding route, so they just told the dentist to take them out and damn the consequences to my oral health.

When I became a teenager, I worked out a few things on my own about taking care of my teeth and became pretty fastidious about brushing. To this day, I can't tolerate the idea of going to bed without clean teeth and generally have not had any issues since getting them cleaned up and having all the cavities drilled and filled in Japan early on during my stay. It's a sad statement on the health care situation in the U.S. that I worked two jobs simultaneously just after college (one full, one part-time) and had no dental care plan (nor did I have one from the job I held in California). I had to go to another country to find a system that would take care of my problems in an affordable manner.

Fortunately, after that initial sequence of drilling and filling, all has been well for many years. Two years ago, I went to the dentist for a check-up and cleaning and he looked at my teeth for all of 10 seconds and said they were still fine. The same system of socialized medicine in Japan that took care of my teeth also encourages doctors to offer thumbnail consultations for those on the national plan, unfortunately. However, it's certainly better than the nothing I had in the States.

About a year ago, I started waking up with a bad taste in my mouth. For a lot of people, I'm guessing this is probably not unusual if all the "morning breath" allusions are to be believed. For the record, I've never had that problem. It seems that I've reached the age where being careful with brushing isn't enough and I had to break down and start with the flossing. Yes, I know you're supposed to floss regularly all your life, but I didn't have any issues so I was slack. Also, my gums are sensitive and it gave me terrible headaches from referred pain to do it so I gave up. I'm going to forestall any reminders about how sensitive gums are the result of not flossing and you have to do it for awhile to get past that by saying I'm already aware of that. That being said, I haven't had any gum disease.

This particular change has been yet another reminder of the fact that there are all sorts of lapses in judgment about your health that you can get away with when you're younger that you can't allow as you get older. I can't tell you how many times I've recognized that a body in its 40's isn't going to recover as quickly or effortlessly from bad habits as one in its 20's. I don't mind a lot of things about getting older, but the fact that your body no longer (seemingly) effortlessly and transparently looks after itself when you don't apply meticulous care is one I definitely mind.


'badmoodguy' is mike said...

I dislike going to the dentist. For the longest time, like you, I had no way of going except with cash. For a poor college student it's either pay for school and books or a teeth cleaning. Even though I have great dental insurance now, I resisted the need to go because of an irrational fear of dentists.

I recently went to my dentist, exactly one year after my first cancer treatment. I was afraid that there would be problems since I still cannot open my mouth properly. Well, that, and the usual hygienist was always a b*tch. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a new, nice hygienist and she had no problems with my inability to "open wide". Add to that my teeth are in great shape for having been irradiated. Thankfully, it didn't cost me anything!

Mother always insisted on good dental hygiene because of her cavities. Her parents, like yours, didn't put too much focus on that and has the fillings to prove it. Her insistence has paid off pretty well for me, and now like you I cannot go to bed or leave for work without brushing and rinsing. I do that sometimes as much as four times a day.

Orchid64 said...

I used to be pretty intimidated by dentists because the second molar that got yanked was a nightmare. My mouth was insufficiently numb and it hurt like hell. I thought I was somehow immune to novacaine, but it turned out the dentist was just incompetent. When I dug in and had it all taken care of in Japan, it was relatively painless and my fears left me. I've had nothing but good experiences with the two dentists in Japan who have treated me.

I didn't know that irradiating your mouth would prevent you from having problems. That's both scary and cool.

Thanks for commenting! As always, it's good to hear from you!

Emsk said...

I've always noticed what great teeth American people have compared to Brits. In the UK we're entitled to free dental care up to a point, which means orthodontics for kids. Unfortunately, I had two teeth extracted when I shouldn't have, which means my mouth lacks four incisors at the top and I have a bit of a gap.

It also depends on which part of the country you're from. In the south of England, especially round London, we have hard water which is excellent for teeth and bones, but harsh on your skin. But in Scotland, where I grew up, we have soft water, the benefits being the other way round. I remember a dental nurse coming round with little cups of flouride at school - we used to call her the fluoride lady - and we had to rinse our mouths out with it to strengthen our teeth. Consequently, most Scottish people I know have many more fillings than those from London.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Emsk. I guess you're reading backwards, now. ;-) I'll try to catch up with all of your comments, but I hope you'll excuse me if I miss replying back on any of them. I really appreciate them!

I tend to think (hope?) that the British teeth jokes are way overplayed. The Simpsons once did a "big book of British smiles" joke.

I think Americans tend to have better teeth because the water is fluoridated and there's so much pressure to have perfect teeth. My teeth are not perfect, of course, but they're not too bad. I should have had braces as a child, but, again, too poor for that!

I didn't know about the hard water/soft water effect on teeth. That was very interesting to learn. I think I grew up with hard water (fresh spring water), so maybe that mitigated some of the damage of the bad oral hygiene.

By the way, don't the gaps you have get painful when you eat? Mine are relatively small, but sometimes something will hit one just wrong and it's not a fun experience.

'badmoodguy' is mike said...

Oh, fluoride...

Several years ago while I was the IT guy for a law firm downtown I went to the dentist. The evil hygienist gave me the fluoride swish and I dutifully took it and swished. Not long after I got back to work, I started yacking up in the trashbin. I vowed no more fluoride swish for me.

This go around, I told the nice hygienist that I wanted nothing to do with the swish and she was not surprised and said a number of people they see have issues with the fluoride makes many ill, but a fair few have some type of moral issue with it. One of those things that make you go "Hmmm..."

I don't drink tap water, going for the bottled water route. I have to wonder if the lack of fluoride has had any positive/negative affect? Some conspiracy theorists say that it is the government's way of pacifying the populace...