Thursday, July 18, 2024
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THE HEALTHLY STUDENT: Pearly whites take plenty of practice

By Rachel SunterHealth Columnist

Blood, pain and shame; that about sums up my recent dentist check-up. It was supposed to be a regular cleaning, and I’m sure the receptionist would attest to that. For me, it was a deserved punishment, and a lesson learned.
Since my teenage braces came off, blue-masked faces have oohed and aahed over my gaping jaws, commenting on the general splendor of my pearly whites. “Good brushing, I see,” and “so white!” and even, “Joan, come have a look at these.”
Life gets busier, bedtimes get later, and as I’ve gotten older my tooth-brushing practices have gone a little slack.
For years dentists didn’t seem to notice my corner cutting, and I let it get to my head.
This time last year, twice-a-day brushing had fizzled down to once. Mouthwash became an extraneous commodity. And flossing? Pah! Only when I’m feeling really productive.
My chief concerns were that I continued to have good breath, and white teeth in pictures. Gradually, my dental-upkeep guilt lessened, and I was able to happily settle into a low-maintenance routine.
One year later, I’m prepping for tomorrow morning’s appointment. As I floss my teeth in the dim light, I am shocked to see red blotting teeth and fingertips alike. I wonder if maybe gums need to get used to floss or something, like calluses with new shoes.
The next morning, my gums are so sore and red I don’t dare floss again in the hour before my appointment. Anxiety builds in my tummy in the waiting room. Too soon, I am called in.
The dental hygienist is chatty and pleasant, making sure I’m warm enough and my shoulder bag is off to the side so no one steps on it. Chair buzzes back, light flicks on, open up wide, and it begins. With the same metal tools I’m long past caring about, she scrapes around each tooth to remove my annual build-up of plaque.
I’m half-focused on answering the usual questions about school and boyfriends when piercing pain interrupts my thoughts. The hygienist says nothing out of the ordinary, so neither do I. As she goes along, the pain builds, spreads and rings with stinging.
I begin to wonder if she’s unpracticed, or distracted. I stop talking, half to encourage her focus, half because I’m tense with anticipation for the next slice of her hand, but nothing improves. If my pain is any measure of the bleeding going on in there, it’s a wonder she can see anything to keep scraping at.
Sure enough, the hygienist pauses to, “Give a little rinse, there,” with a water tube. Unbelievably, the pain from each freshly cleaned tooth persists, doubling and tripling as each tooth gets its metal cleanse.
I find myself newly eyeing the shining curves and points of those things she’s using. I feel like I’m seeing these “tools” for the first time: torture devices.
I willfully daydream to distract myself from the pain, though images of iron maidens and thumb-screws keep reappearing. I wonder if hundreds of years form now, scholars will chortle at the primitive nature of 21st century dentistry, what with their crude utensils and absent anesthetic.
As a last resort, I mentally recite passages from my favourite medieval fantasy books, where protagonists bravely undergo all degrees of physical strain. Embrace the pain, I chant to myself.
None of it helps.
When the hygienist finally tells me to take a good rinse and pick which flavour of gritty toothpaste I’d like for my polishing, I practically shiver with relief. After the slice-and-dice I’ve just had on my raw flesh, the irritating tickle and hum of the rubber polishing brush is a warm massage in a mountain spa.
Before I go, the dentist comes in for a look. She comments on how readily my gums are bleeding.
How often do I floss? Oh, once every few days or so. I privately wonder if all dentists have a rule when it comes to patients’ hygiene claims. To calculate actual flossing habits, divide maximum admitted days between flossing by three.
Though the tenderness and bloodiness of my gums shout my lies, the dentist prescribes the usual daily flossing and careful brushing around the gums to avoid complications.
Turning to make some notes, she adds that running from it only makes it worse.
For once, I hush the “blah-blahs” in my head and listen. Convinced and determined to improve my at-home dental care, I openly admit my motivation is one-part health, one-part aesthetics, and two-parts pain.
It’s been nearly two weeks of nearly daily flossing, and my gums are bleeding less than they have for a year. With a resigned sigh, I admit defeat. Out with the tooth gunk, hello happy gums.

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