Lessons from a Root Canal

For the last four months, I have been struggling with extreme dental pain. Four months ago, I went to the dentist for the first time in over 3 years. I had three cavities that needed filling, and I was getting the first two filled. After the procedure, I started feeling pain in my teeth and jaws. I didn’t know what it was, so I went back to the dentist. She said that it was probably just healing pain but to come back if it continued, and that I would probably need a root canal. Unfortunately, I left the country to visit Alex’s parents. For the next two weeks I continued on a cocktail of Aleve and Tylenol. The pain wasn’t getting any better. It was getting worse. The day we got back home, I called the dentist and made an appointment. It would be in a week. Then two days before the appointment, on New Year’s Day, the pain got so intense that I couldn’t do it anymore. I went to an emergency dentist, who did an x-ray and gave me an unexpected answer: my wisdom teeth, which were already eventually to be removed, were infected and needed to be removed right away. There was nothing he could do so he gave me x-rays and some painkillers and sent me on my way.

Everything happened quickly after that. I saw my regular dentist on Friday, on Monday I had an appointment with an oral surgeon, and on Thursday, all four of my wisdom teeth were removed. The pain got better, but didn’t go away. It made sense at first, surgery and recovery hurt. I kept taking Tylenol and Aleve and hoped the pain would soon go away. When it came time to get my final filling two weeks ago, I went and let my dentist know that I still had pain. It’s normal she said, it can take 6 weeks for all the post-op pain to go away. There were no signs of infection. I went home comforted.

Until about 3 days ago when the pain took a dramatic turn for the worst. No longer was it responding to painkillers. I took more Tylenol and Aleve than advised, all in the hopes of making it stop, just for a moment. I even dug into my medicine cabinet and pulled out some of the left over Dilaudid from this summer. Nothing helped.

I tried to figure out what was going on. I got some relief from pressing into my sinus points, so I followed that angle. One of the risks of oral surgery is the possibility of fistulas to the sinuses. I have fistulising Crohn’s disease. The risks were a bit more risky in my case. I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I went to the ER. I spent the night there, while they gave me painkillers that didn’t work and took x-rays. The answer came that it was dental.

It was a Sunday. I don’t know how long I could take it. Due to a series of circumstances, I was under too much emotional pressure, and this pain in addition to my Crohn’s pain was breaking me. I was pressing so hard into my face to lessen the pain even a little, I am sure eventually bruises will come up. Despite not having had a wink of sleep I called to try and find an emergency dentist. I succeeded and yesterday I had a root canal. The cavity that I had had filled months ago had not been enough. The very root of my tooth, the nerve, was infected.

On Monday, I called my own dentist to find out when I could come in to get the second half of the root canal done, only to find out that I can’t. My dentist is out of the office for a month, and no one else at her clinic accepts the insurance provided by disability/ODSP. Today… I have a fever. My whole body is stiff from arthritis pain that often accompanies me being sick. I will most likely have to go on antibiotics, and hopefully, they won’t need to be taken so long that I will have to postpone my Remicade.

In summary, because of a cavity that went untreated for several years, I ended up with an infection. An infection that is now apparently spreading to the rest of my body. An infection which in turn might delay treatment of a serious condition. Delayed treatment may result in my hospitalization. In a direct line, dental health traced back to traditional medical health. My dental health, which was delayed because I could not afford it, has cost tax payers money and may yet cost them more. And why? Because at some point a decision was made to separate certain body parts from what constitutes healthcare. Namely the eyes and mouth.

As a result of this decision, even in Canada where we have socialized healthcare, dental health is not covered by the provincial healthcare. This means that there are many people who cannot afford proper dental health. The ones most harmed are also the ones most at risk. Like my neighbour, an older woman with Lupus, who has needed an extraction for years, but cannot afford it. Like me before I got onto ODSP.

As a result of this decision, the health of our entire nation is at risk. Why? Because dental health, oral health, affects the health of your entire body. What’s more, we have known this for some time.

Take gingivitis, a condition that affects many people and which has known links to heart disease. Gingivitis, a gum infection that is sometimes characterized on commercials as a scary monster that causes your gums to bleed, left untreated, can lead to serious heart disease and heart attacks.

Other infections in the mouth can lead to infections in other parts of the body. It bears remembering that your mouth and your brain are very close together.

The separation of dental health from medical health can also lead to mistreatment and diagnosis of serious conditions. Take TMD/TMJ which can lead to, among other things, chronic serious migraines, and which many doctors dealing with headaches have little to no knowledge of. That’s because the temporomandibular joint, is in your jaw, and so is considered a dental problem. The treatment of this condition, which can lead to impairment and long term pain, is not covered by medical insurance and is cost-prohibited for many people. Even more terrifyingly, it is often not covered by dental insurance either. Treatment can require among other things, specialized retainers, surgery, special sleeping equipment and more.

I’ve discussed previously the dangers of long term pain. The way it changes your nervous system, your brain chemistry. Untreated consistent pain makes you susceptible to other conditions. It lowers your immune system. It affects your cognitive abilities. Long term pain can interfere with your ability to care for yourself. It can make depression worse. Long term pain is dangerous, and dental pain can be ongoing and severe.

Dental health is medical health. The separation is arbitrary, and it is dangerous. It leaves the poor in particular at risk of serious long-term consequences. The decision to separate dentistry from medicine is an act of violence against people who live in poverty. Against the disabled. And it needs to stop. The distinction needs to be dropped and dental care needs to be provided with the same vigour with which medical care is. It needs to be covered by what constitutes socialized medicine. And don’t get me started on eye care.

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