When I was around 12 years old, I had a dentist fill a tooth cavity without giving me any numbing drugs. He told me the procedure would be easy and quick, and to just raise my hand if it hurt.
When I raised my hand while he was drilling in my mouth, he told me, “It’ll be over quick, I’m almost finished. Just another minute.” I felt like my hand was touching the ceiling of the office, and it felt like he was drilling in my tooth for an hour. The pain was intense. Incredible. And I was a prisoner to the operation — a 12 year old kid, under the authority of a dentist holding sharp instruments in my mouth.
I don’t remember if I ever told my parents about it, and I don’t know if they would remember it even if I did. That was about 30 years ago. I’d always gone to that dentist, and I don’t remember a time other than that where I had a bad experience with him.
I can still remember that pain and that feeling of helplessness. That time was the last time I had a cavity filled until about four years ago, (by a different dentist). When I went in that time, the anticipation of that potential pain made me very anxious. I was just short of trembling when I heard the drill start up.
Fortunately, that time, I felt absolutely nothing of the drilling in my tooth. No pain at all. It was a huge relief.
Then with my latest regular check up a few months ago, the x-rays found another cavity. Dammit. The filling date was last week. I managed to not think much about it till about an hour before the time.
When I went to the dentist office, (a different one from the last filling), the old memory of that unnumbed drilling came back. My anxiety level was at the top of my chart. I could remember that intense pain as well as if I had experienced it yesterday.
But I went through with the procedure. Laying in the chair, waiting for the local meds to take affect, I fidgeted like a hyper-active 6 year old. As the side of my face numbed, strangely, my anxiety increased. When the doctor started in my mouth, I started sweating.
The expectation and anticipation of pain was forefront in my mind for the entire half hour I laid there with my mouth open. I never felt any physical discomfort, but I couldn’t get my mind to concentrate on anything but the drill going into my tooth. Like before, this dentist told me to raise my hand if I felt any pain. I never raised my hand, but both my hands were actively wringing each other in my lap.
When it was over, and the doctor was talking to me about what he did, I mentioned that old experience with drilling pain. The doctor commented, “I saw how your face was, and I was afraid you were hurting. But you never raised your hand.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I was just constantly expecting pain.”
The doctor explained, “That other dentist was just lazy for not giving you something for pain. That was an awful thing to do. If we ever have to fill another tooth, we can give you some nitrous oxide, if you want. It’ll make you more relaxed.”
Well, first off, I hope I don’t have to get another tooth filled. If I do, I’ll consider the N2O. I kind of don’t like the idea of having to get drugged up just to avoid anxiety, and I’ve managed to get through it twice without help. But is there any real reason or benefit to put up with the short-term anxiety when there is an easy and safe way to skip it?
Have you ever seen the movie Marathon Man? I saw it for the first time maybe ten years after my bad dentist experience. I don’t know how many people in the world today have experienced the pain of a dental drill in a “live” tooth, but that scene where Babe is tortured by the Nazi dentist — yeah, it’s effective.