Dentists get a bad rap—most people can’t help but think of Steve Martin’s sadist DDS in Little Shop of Horrors. In fact, tens of millions of people suffer “dental-phobia;” most commonly they fixate on fear of pain and emotions ranging from anxiety about the loss of control to annoyance at being lectured about gum care.
The good news is like everything else, technological advancements in this medical field have made visits to the chair more effective, less time consuming and often, far less odious. For instance, in days of yore, the nightmare of an infected or dead tooth meant multiple visits to the dentist that would entail intricate cutting and re-shaping of the root by hand, hence “root canal.” Today mechanized files do the work, and often far less invasively.
Cavities? Never mind the alien-like whir of a drill in your head. A high-powered combo of super thin water stream and laser smooth away decay. Permanent, and natural looking, implants have replaced removable (and losable) dentures. Invisalign (soft, clear, disposable plastic trays) have replaced the metal contraptions of Marsha Brady day braces. And Lumineers are applied over teeth to correct stains rather than attempting to remove damaged enamel.
Still, it’s what you do—and don’t do—between visits that counts. Beyond chewing sugarless gum, which has shown some evidence of being a cavity-fighting agent, what do you do? Water-jets are one inexpensive way to clean those hard to reach crevices. The stream flushes spaces where even floss can’t get, like around implants and crowns, to help remove food and other residue. Some foods are more helpful in promoting dental health than others, too. Fruits like citrus, apples and strawberries are rich in Vitamin C, which helps restore gum tissue. Vegetables provide Vitamin A, which aids in formation of enamel and crunchy ones, like carrots and broccoli, massage and clean gums and teeth when chewed. Halitosis? Odorous bacteria form when either food particles are trapped in crevices in the mouth (see water-jet above) or when diets are lacking in zinc. Foods like some beans, nuts, lentils and even dark chicken meat, red meat and seafood, are higher in zinc and work to counter bad breath.
And what about the quest for those super pearly whites? Enamel, the protective layer of your teeth, absorbs colorful molecules in everything from coffee to wine to blueberries, which diminishes the whiteness over time. Dentin, the layer just beneath enamel, yellows as we age. Since enamel is porous and allows light to pass to the dentin, discoloration on that level is reflected out. Tetracycline, the antibiotic given to many children, can attach a film to teeth before the enamel hardens and over time, into adulthood for instance, the teeth can take on a grayish-blue color. To combat the discoloration, most whitening agents work to remove stains at the surface. For more serious and longer-lasting effects, hydrogen peroxide based whitening gels are able to penetrate the enamel and get right into the dentin. At-home remedies work, but require weeks of diligence. On the other hand, dental practitioners are able to apply stronger variations of whiteners safely and with better degrees of success. If all else fails, there are always veneers. Dentists can apply thin layers of porcelain or resin directly to the teeth that are custom designed, each for a specific tooth. Although not permanent, veneers are long term, virtually maintenance free and results are visible once the application is set.
So smile, it really won’t be that bad. Even the old naugahyde chairs and worn out back issues of Teen Vogue have been replaced with ergonomic leather recliners and ceiling mounted HDTVs so you can kick on the back massage and watch a movie. Just don’t start texting or checking email on your smartphone. One informal study showed dentists found distracted patients do not hold steady, which makes it hard for them to get their sharp tools into the bullseye they’re aiming for.