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No Pain, No Gain

Many people can’t stand going to the dentist. There are many reasons, but the thought of being inflicted with excruciating pain is undoubtedly the most common. The truth is you may have experienced some pain at the dentist, but being alive in the 21st century, you really have no reason to complain. In the last several decades, dental work has gone hand in hand with general anesthesia, oral sedation, nitrous oxide and other pain-reducing procedures and techniques. You can be sure our ancient ancestors had access to no such luxuries.

It seems on some level, humans have always been aware of the usefulness of teeth and the importance of tooth health. At the least they have known when something is seriously wrong and needs fixing. To the ancient Egyptians, functionality and appearance of their teeth meant a great deal to them. And the dentist who would take care of them commanded a great deal of respect.

Primitive Methods

Prehistoric humans were drilling teeth 9,000 years ago in Pakistan. We know this from numerous skulls found in graveyards with drill holes.

Humans’ ability to inflict and withstand copious amounts of pain back then is abundantly clear. So was their ability to implement their ingenuity when they needed it. They had devised small bows for driving flint drills into teeth. The drills could reach hard-to-reach molars. Nonetheless, tools and techniques at the time were extremely crude. It was the Egyptians who elevated experimentation in the art and science of dentistry to new heights. In ancient Egypt, the practice of dentistry was limited to the royal court. Historical records show the first mention of a dentist there was in 2650 BC.

In the Ebers Medical Papyrus created by Egyptian physicians of the time, numerous remedies are mentioned to help keep teeth in good, working condition. Among them, Nile clay was used to fill cavities, herbal lotions were used to prevent pain and mixtures of frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon and other fragrant spices were formed into pellets and taken to cure bad breath. Dentists believed strongly in preventing ailments, as curing them was very much hit or miss. Judging by how well dentists were treated, they clearly had a high degree of success. The death of a dentist was a big deal and placement in a special tomb upon burial was a common custom.

Advancements in dentistry have made leaps and bounds in the last several decades, however there are still parts of the world even today where access to proper dental care is sub-par.

Sub-Saharan Health

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of chronic diseases are left untreated. That includes oral health diseases that are among the most common of all diseases.

In Ethiopia, more than half the population complains of oral pain, though little if anything is done to help them. Oral health is imperative to overall health and it is a component of a larger health reform that needs to be addressed. There are less than 50 dentists in all of Ethiopia and the majority of them work out of the capitol city, Addis Ababa. There is almost no opportunity for remote villagers to get any help. Throughout the country there is a high incidence of hardened plaque and gingivitis. Most people experience at least some form of dental erosion due to the presence of sand in their food due to the arid environment.

Thanks to a new initiative by Columbia’s College of Dental Medicine and generous donations, a new program to target oral health problems and develop sustainable prevention and treatment programs is being developed. The program will be tested in a limited number of villages at first and then implemented on a wider scale. Proper oral health, though it is just one piece of a very large puzzle, is important to lifting Sub-Sahara out of poverty and helping the population to become more productive.

In many parts of the developed world, dental records of patients as well as dental remains are used for more than just dentistry. They are also used to solve crimes.

Dental Matching

There is no doubt that the job of a forensic dentist is exciting. Responsible for examining oral evidence that has been left after a crime has been committed, these special dentists work tooth and nail to help solve the mystery.

Unlike other parts of the human anatomy, teeth of a dead body can withstand extreme conditions including decay caused over time. Plus they are unique, making them a crime workers best friend. At crime scenes, forensic dentists collect skulls or teeth and take them back to their labs for examination. X-rays are taken and if dental records are recent, a match can be made in a short amount of time. Everything from crowns and bridges to caps and missing teeth are used to make determinations. Furthermore, the teeth’s wear and tear can indicate a person’s age and the type of dental work that has been performed can help narrow down countries or regions of the world where the work was performed.

Like all other aspects of dentistry, forensic dentistry has come a long way and new technologies in the field will help make solving of crimes even easier in the future.

Bright White Future

We have come a long way in regards to the science and art of dentistry. With new technologies constantly being developed and refined, the boundaries of what is possible in the field are constantly being pushed. Many advances on the horizon are very exciting.

Beyond the use of high-pressure silicates for cutting teeth and digital x-rays, scientists are working on ways to spur the growth of new teeth from the jawbone. They are also working on breakthrough ingredients for toothpaste and mouthwash that will repair cavities. Furthermore, the practice of holistic dentistry is catching on. Also known as biologic dentistry, holistic dentistry is an alternative approach that focuses on using non-toxic materials for dental work. While traditional dentistry focuses on the mouth, this system focuses on the entire body and its relation to the mouth in regards to overall health.

With all the new advances in dentistry on the horizon, it seems we can look forward to bright, white, healthy and hopefully painless futures for our teeth. A time may come when going to the dentist is an absolute pleasure – though that might be a bit of a stretch.