Dental Adventures

I am terrified.  The Dentist.  Drilling.  Today.  When I made the appointment weeks ago, it seemed doable… conveniently far away, but doable.

Cavities.  Time to get them filled.  Then End.

As I get in my car to drive to my appointment, I am reminded that the appointment is full of experiences I haven’t been able to cope with for the past 2 1/2 years – pain of the numbing shot,  discomfort of having one or more people poking around at my teeth with tools,  the bright lights shining above me, and the noise.

The sound of drills.  Before I was injured, the sound of a dentist drilling – that high pitch whining over and over again… that drove me frikkin crazy… to the point where I brought my ipod to every dentist drilling appointment, put in earbuds, and cranked up loud and aggressive music to drown out the sound of that machine.

Post injury, loud music no longer offers comfort or protection.  And the idea of that drilling noise near my head, outside of my control, something I can’t get away from seems intolerable.  I am scared I’ll lose my shit and start crying uncontrollably, freak out and yell, or physically attack the dentist and run away.   Here’s one of my earliest posts about baulking at a drilling appointment, 11 months post injury.

A Visit to the Dentist’s Office

Now, to be clear, I have had these cavities about 3 years.  They mostly didn’t bother me – some temperatures sensitivity and painful twinges every once in a while.  Manageable, in the face of all the craziness of brain injury and trying to keep my job.  It’s been hanging over my head, though, as something that needs to be done.

I made an appointment to get my cavities filled last December 2015.  Then cancelled it.  I rescheduled it for April 2016.  And cancelled it.  I rescheduled it for the end of May.  And cancelled it.  Finally, I made this appointment and I’m keeping it.  A bit of time off work and my energy is better… plus I didn’t have any obligations that require me to be functional for the rest of the week — perfect time to do something that might be too much.

This morning started fine – I walked, stretched, poked at the garden, had breakfast.  I downed 1000 mg of acetaminophen to preemptively manage the upcoming pain, and am leaving the house with 10 minutes to spare so I can stop by the bank.  The drive through the islands is fine, but when I hit the intersection of Hwy 2 and 7 the stoplight is flashing red. <Groan>  Then, I see a police officer up ahead directing traffic, and think “this shouldn’t be so bad”.  I get in the left turn lane and wait.  And wait.  I watch the officer direct traffic from the north, then from the south.  I watch him move the right turn lane along from my direction.  And I sit.  And wait.

After about 15 minutes of not moving forward one foot, my blood starts boiling.  Yes, I start honking.  Yes, I start yelling at the police officer and waving my arms.  Yes, pre-injury I would have been appalled by the ill-mannered, ill-tempered lunatic hollering out her window in frustration.


Yah, something like this.

But.  My patience is much less than it once was.  When I see the asphalt truck pulling through the intersection, followed by the steam rollers… I give up.  I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

I arrive at the dentist’s office 20 minutes late.  I hate being late, for any reason.  Anger still pumps through my veins, making me express my frustrations at the traffic situation for longer than needed for a polite apology about tardiness.  They let me vent because – apparently – there is extensive construction and delays on both the north and south side of the town, so everyone is coming in frustrated.  On the plus side, that fight instinct pushes aside some of my nervousness and anxiety.

I am quickly brought back to the room for my fillings.


It just looks like a torture device, right?

I sit down in the reclining dental chair like a grown up.  And, contrary to every behavior I’ve had in the past 40 years, I actually talk with the dental assistant about my concerns.  I tell her about my head injury, my sensitivity to noise and light, and my concern that I’ll “freak the fuck out” once the dentist starts drilling.

She seems to take my words in stride.  Quickly, she suggests that we do one filling, see how it goes, then decide on the others.  When the dentist came in, he reaffirms it is fine if we just do one filling today.  They are both friendly, helpful… completely accepting of my limitations and fears.

The numbing shot is tolerable, and quick.  My jaw and lip numb on cue.  As we wait, the dental assistant finds me some close fitting sunglasses which immediately cut my overstimulation in half.  Once the drilling is about to begin, they don’t act like I am weird as I put in ear plugs, and slide ear muffs over them.

The drilling is still horrible.  The high pitch whine of the drill can be heard through my mouth.  The heavy, thudding grind of the second drill makes my head ache and starts to crack my resolve.  Only his technique of using either drill in short bursts with micro pauses in between keeps me sane and in the chair.  Finally, it is done.  Whew.

Unpleasant, uncomfortable, but tolerable.  Let’s do the other two.

But they tricked me, at least a bit.  The second two involved molars.  Which required deep shots in multiple places around my jaw.  Ouch.  More drilling, too.  More fiddling. Uck.  But, eventually, everything is done.

The lesson?  It is okay to be scared and to express it instead of just holding it all inside.  Letting other people know how I feel allows them the opportunity to work with me and to find ways to help me.  So strange.  Not my usual choice – usually I just bull through, certainly don’t ask for help or express weakness.  Turns out when I do it makes for a much better experience.  Instead of keeping myself on one side of my wall and them on the other and having feelings of anger and resentment for what they are”doing” to me, we are a team and we work together.  Everyone knowing where everyone else is at.  Fascinating.  And very positive.  They were great.

And look at me, success!  Another hurtle I didn’t know if I could jump, but I did… and now I don’t have holes actively rotting in my teeth – excellent!


I thought the story would end here.  It should have ended here.  But it didn’t.


In a few days, I noticed my routine headaches were getting worse and were one-sided.  I felt like crap most of the time and couldn’t figure out why.  It took me several weeks to notice that the pain flared up right after I ate (irritating thing re: brain injury, not remembering what hurt when. urgh).  Then, I noticed that my left jaw ached all the time.  Had it been doing that for weeks?  No idea.  I started taking ibuprophen every 4 hours, which took the edge off but didn’t get rid of all the pain.

I tried Traumeel pills.


I tried trigger point therapy.


I tried mouthwash twice a day.

I tried acupuncture.

Nothing made the pain stop or go away.  I finally admitted defeat and called the dentist.  My dentist was on vacation, but they got me in to see another dentist with the practice.  Dr. Fitzgerald.  She is great.  She did x-rays, she poked and prodded, she tested pressure and cold sensitivity.  We talked through the possibilities.  Irritatingly, there was no smoking gun.  She confirmed that what I was experiencing was nerve pain, not muscle pain from the fillings.  Likely, it has nothing to do with the fillings.

And that’s when I remembered that I haven’t been chewing on one side of my mouth for several years.  Maybe more.  I’m not really sure how long it’s been.  I stopped at some point because it hurt.  Hmmm… maybe that had something to do with it (doi!).

Finally, we narrowed it down to two candidates.   I left there still in pain, but with a task.  Pay close attention to when the pain starts or spikes, and try to figure out which tooth it is.  I suspect it is the far back one, which has a weird old filling and a crack along the side.  If it is that one, the dentist said there is a possibility that I’d just need a crown.  If it is too far gone, I’m looking at a root canal.  In either case – a nightmare.

I still have dental insurance, but of course crowns are only covered at 50%.  Last time I got one (10, maybe 15 years ago?), they were about $1000, which means my part would be $500.  Which is $500 more than I made in the last month.  What a fucking shitty time to need dental work.  But this pain has to stop; I need it to end.  This constant ache, the continuous use of pain meds… it just can’t continue.  I will somehow brave whatever dental work is needed for this dreadful experience to be over.  Wish me luck, friends.

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2 Responses to Dental Adventures

  1. Shit damn. I am so sorry. I feel your pain, vicariously.

    I haven’t been to a dentist since 2001. Trauma, plain and simple. And I can’t hold out much longer because I’ve got two cracked teeth. I too am very concerned what drilling will do to my head. These damned TBIs.

    I wish you an enormous slice of luck, with a dish of luck on the side. Keep us posted.


  2. Margaret E. Carlson says:

    Oh my gosh, this hits very close to home. I have to go in too, and after seven years. I’m close, but not quite ready. People don’t always understand the lights and sounds part for brain patients. Not to mention the pain. I’ve chewed on one side for years. Yikes. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. 🙂


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