Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Mother of All Toothaches

I'm not afraid of going to the dentist. Twice a year I plop myself into the chair, allow my head to be lowered to an uncomfortable angle, and submit to a battery of abuse - scraping, scrubbing, speed flossing, sometimes drilling, strange tastes and the occasional freezing shot from the Water Pik. Maybe the worst for me is the X-ray - an odd-shaped piece of plastic wedged so awkwardly in my mouth that I instantly feel like gagging.

And yet, I know -- I'm one of the lucky ones. Plenty of people have no such luxuries.

Eight days ago, I started to feel a slight throb in my lower right jaw. Just a teensy throb, hardly consequential at the moment. We were in New York, a stolen two-and-a-half day idyll before Will's conference in Philadelphia. I pushed the throbbing to the back of my mind - I'm good at ignoring things -- and soldiered on. And then, that night, I couldn't sleep. I lay awake in our room on the 19th floor, listening to the city not sleeping below me, and tried to isolate the pain. It really did seem like my entire body was throbbing, and unaccountably so. We'd climbed some steps, sure, and walked quite a few blocks, but that's nothing I can't handle. My entire head seemed to ache, too, like my forehead had become a pulse point. Eventually, I took four Ibuprofen and slowly drifted off.

But the dang pain just wouldn't go away. I confessed it to Will the next morning over breakfast: "I think I might have a bit of a toothache."

"Oh, no!" Will dropped his fork, mid-bite. If anyone can sympathize with tooth pain/dentist phobia, it's Will, a man who did not visit the dentist for eleven years, a man who once lost a hefty chunk of porcelain to a piece of sourdough bread in Monterey.

"It's okay -- it's not too bad," I insisted. I'd brought along a Ziploc baggie of Ibuprofen, but needed to stop for more as soon as we made it to Philadelphia. I had a brief vision of the ulcer I was creating - first a tiny hole, then eventually the sort of fissure I could punch a fist through.

The painkillers took the edge off, and for two or three days this was remedy enough. I met up with friends, favored the left side of my mouth when I ate, timed my doses, and tried my hardest to fall asleep at night.

By the fourth day, I had to admit defeat. I'd toyed with the idea of calling a dentist in Philadelphia, but hesitated, not knowing if this were truly an emergency and not having the slightest clue what my insurance covered when it came to this sort of thing. Because at this point I was really thinking: Exposed nerve. Root canal. The pain was so intense that I couldn't bring the lower half of my jaw to meet my upper. I walked around the city slack-jawed, cringing if anyone or anything came within a foot of my face.

I called my dentist and explained the situation. The next morning when Will headed into a conference, I hiked myself down to CVS and obtained a five-day supply of Vicodin. I have a love-hate relationship with Vicodin. I love how it lets me forget, if only for a couple of hours, that I've been experiencing pain. I hate how it wreaks havoc on my stomach (nausea, anyone?) and my sense of equilibrium. Will was instructed not to laugh as I made my way to the bathroom by holding onto the wall in our hotel room.

Eventually, I settled into a sort of rhythm, designed to last until Tuesday morning, when I could see my dentist at home. Every three hours I dosed myself: 1 Vicodin, three hours later 4 Ibuprofen, then 1 Vicodin and so on. If I missed a dose, I was alerted by pain radiating down my neck -- my own built-in alarm clock. There's a quote I half-remember from somewhere: "A headache? I had the kind of headache God smote you with in the Old Testament." I had the sort of toothache that could easily have been swapped for one of the ten plagues. Bring on the locusts, the flies, the hail, the boils (okay, maybe not the boils) -- they had nothing on this toothache.

This morning, I was twenty-five minutes early for my dentist appointment, a Paula record. I thought I held it together on the outside, chatting about my trip through teeth that didn't meet, although inwardly I was begging: Me next! Call me next!

I submitted to the wedging of large, sharp-edged plastic into my tender mouth and waited anxiously for the results. "Hmm," my dentist said, "Nothing there."

I dug my fingernails into the plastic armwrests. Look more closely! There must be something wrong!

"Why don't we take a look at your bite?" she suggested.

Was she insane? I couldn't bite. People in the throes of pain should not be asked to accomplish such unreasonable tasks. But I submitted again, grudgingly, to a series of "tap, tap" and "side to side" instructions.

"Are you biting as hard as you can?" she asked, skeptically. "It doesn't seem like you're biting at all."

I estimated that I was a good thirty seconds away from crying.

"You know, this might be the problem. Head back," she instructed, and before I knew it, sans any sort of numbing agent, a tiny silver drill was whirring away in my mouth. Only, it didn't hurt. It actually felt ... okay.

Here's the problem, as it was explained to me: In March (yes, four months ago), I'd had a crown installed. It didn't seem to fit exactly right at first, but after a day or so, I got used to it. Nothing hurt, nothing seemed problematic. In fact, it was ill-fitted, meaning that I hadn't been biting down correctly for months, and the entire area around this crown (basically, the lower right section of my mouth) was inflamed. It might take a week, but now that my bite was corrected, the pain would gradually subside and I would soon be back to normal. With any luck, I would be able to chew something more complicated than a piece of gnocchi or cereal completely saturated by milk.

"And if it's still hurting...?"

She snapped off her gloves, then gave me a pat on the shoulder. "Then just give me a call."


  1. It's a wonder how a little thing such as a tooth crown can mean a lot of pain, skipped meals, and a weekend abruptly cut-off. So what did your dentist do about your crown?

  2. Awwwww! It must have been a painful experience for you! Well, I bet you are feeling okay now since you have a dentist who's willing to take care of your teeth.