What Can I Do about My Bad Teeth?
These days dental care is as expensive as buying a car or house!
My grandfather was mostly toothless by the time he was 50. That's the way it was in the early decades of the 1900s. Back then, at least for people in the lower or middle class, to be old was to be without teeth. As for me, I'm determined to avoid my grandpa's fate, so I'm doing what I can to repair my bad teeth. Since 1996 I've spent more than $41,000 on my pearly whites - and they still aren't perfect. Alas, they never will be! This article contains the best advice I can give a person regarding the care and repair of those troublesome damn pointy things in one's mouth.
Practice Daily Dental Care
Using a high quality, soft toothbrush and the best toothpaste - my dentist recommends Crest - brush you teeth at least twice a day, but definitely before you go to bed, so the food particles won't sit in your mouth all night and wreak havoc. Or, brush after every meal if you possibly can. (Some people actually do this!) When you brush, use an easy circular motion; otherwise, you may damage your teeth and/or your gums. Also floss every day if you can; if not, at least once every other day. And once or twice a week, rub some Glyoxide (expensive) or hydrogen peroxide (cheap) on your gums to keep them clean, firm and hopefully pink. Another thing to do is avoid taking drugs - legal or otherwise - that dry-out your mouth, because saliva helps flush food particles from the mouth, and the enzymes in it help prevent tooth decay.
Some people prefer to use natural substances for healthcare. Neem toothpaste contains a natural antibiotic that could be beneficial when brushing one’s teeth. Specifically, neem toothpaste may help reduce the buildup of plaque on teeth and strengthen gums. Many people swear it works wonders, so you may want to give this apparently healthy stuff a try.
Avoid Eating Processed Sugar
The ancient Chinese believed that tooth decay (a.k.a. dental caries) was caused by excessive sexual intercourse. The Chinese would think so, wouldn't they? While the Classic Greeks believed it was an imbalance of "humors" or bodily fluids that caused it. Interestingly, this belief led to people being "bled" to reduce the humors. Believe it or not, bleeding was practiced all the way into the twentieth century. Anyhow, increased consumption of processed sugar in the seventeenth century, particularly in European countries such as England, caused an exponential increase in tooth decay. And we've been gobbling the stuff ever since - the consequences be damned! In particular, avoid sugary gum, hard candy and soda pop. If you must have something sweet to eat or drink, make sure it contains a sugar substitute. What? Give up sugar? You'd have an easier time giving up the Internet, wouldn't you?
Get Regular Checkups
You should get a checkup once every six months, because whatever plaque you missed while brushing and flossing can be chipped or scraped away by the dental hygienist. It's also a good idea to have somebody else give your teeth a good visual examination. And, from time to time, your dentist will want you to have X-rays taken of various sections of your teeth. These are a good idea too, but as far as I'm concerned, you'll probably be able to "feel" whatever problems you have without getting X-rays, as long as you stay in touch with your mouth. So, if you want to save a little money, refuse the X-rays.
Take Care of Problems Sooner Rather than Later
If you have a sudden change in the way your teeth feel, that is, if your teeth presently show an unusual sensitivity to hot or cold, or if you have discomfort or pain while chewing, get to the dentist as soon as possible. What starts out as a cavity can quickly become a root canal or an extraction or a bridge or an implant. Use your credit card if you have to, or borrow the money from your mother, father or girlfriend, but get the work done preferably within days and definitely within weeks. What starts out costing hundreds can soon turn to thousands if you don't act promptly!
Cavities and Fillings
In the old days, many people thought cavities were caused by tooth worms. Well, there are no worms in your teeth, but there could be plaque around them. Undigested food, particularly starch and sugar, mixes with saliva, creating an acidic substance known as plaque. Plaque causes tooth decay. So, if you develop a cavity, get it drilled out ASAP. Have the cavity filled with silver amalgam - a metal filling - or composite, a tooth-colored plastic resin. (These days, composite material is good enough to be used for filling molars, a procedure which requires great resistance to compression.)
Gold fillings are also available but much more expensive. I prefer composite because after the filling is done, the tooth looks perfectly natural, though, keep in mind, each type of filling can eventually crack and have to be replaced; and every time a filling is replaced, some of the tooth is drilled away in the process, degrading your teeth. (Oh, I hate when that happens!) Some dentists use laser drills, which provide more precision and therefore may cause little if any tooth degradation, potentially saving people lots of money. (I have no experience with laser drilling. Perhaps I should try it.)
However, if you can’t afford to have a dentist fill a tooth, there’s a cheap, temporary solution. At the drug store they sell something called Refilit, which costs just $5 for a two-gram jar of this cement that can be used to fill teeth. My friend says he used Refilit to replace a lost filling in a molar and four months later it was still in place!
In the Middle Ages, toothaches were treated with substances such as arsenic, laxatives, raven's dung or mercury, or the patient was bled, sometimes with leeches. Be happy those days are gone for good! Anyway, when you get a toothache, get to a dentist ASAP. In the meantime, you can treat the pain, which can be acute, with acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin or, if you can get a prescription, Vicodin or something even stronger. The problem with Vicodin is that it causes drowsiness, so you shouldn't pop some of it and then drive to the dentist. Also keep in mind that once you get a toothache, you'll probably eventually require a root canal on this tooth. (Ouch, in your mouth and in your wallet, baby!) I also have a problem with "transient tooth pain," an odd sensation that goes intermittently from tooth to tooth. It isn't nearly as intense as a toothache or root canal, but it's there nonetheless. If you have this pain, identify it ASAP, so you won't be running to the dentist every time you experience it.
When tooth decay becomes really advanced, necrosis of the pulp (root or nerve) of the tooth may occur. Antibiotics can slow the infection in the root but not eliminate it. Once the root is damaged, you'll have to get a root canal - eventually, because no procedure or medicine can regenerate it. In this procedure, the dentist cleans out the pulp, fills the canal with cement and then seals the tooth. If you're lucky, the tooth may last a lifetime; if not, the tooth could become infected and need more work performed by an endodontist or, finally, extraction. These days, root canals cost over a thousand dollars.
Do root canals hurt? My first two didn't hurt at all, but the third one hurt like torture. Unfortunately, I had to get the second and third root canals within six weeks of each other. So, by the time I got the third one, my resistance to Novocain had increased greatly; therefore, even after three shots of the stuff the pain was acute! Also keep in mind that some dentists are better at giving shots than others. Above all, you need to get the root canal as soon as the dentist tells you. After being told I would need my very first root canal back in 1996, I waited two years before I finally got it done. Unfortunately, four years after getting the root canal, the tooth turned to mush and had to be extracted. Had I acted soon enough? Probably not.
Fortunately I haven’t had much trouble with gum disease until recently, but about 10 years ago the gum line started receding around two of my lower right front teeth, called bicuspids. What alerted me was that these teeth had become sensitive to cold. I had what’s called gingivitis, which is caused by the bacterial action of plaque that can build up around the teeth. Being one to act quickly, I alerted the dentist and he filled in this “recession zone,” if you will, with composite filling, saving my teeth from possible decay, root canals or whatever possible horror awaited down the line. (Recently I had to get these fillings restored, costing hundreds of dollars.) When gum disease gets really bad it’s called periodontitis, which can attack the tissues and bone around teeth. To prevent these problems, do whatever you can to keep your gums pink rather than white or red, and get regular checkups and cleanings, naturally.
If you think you have gingivitis and don’t want to pay for more dental care (who does?), the cheapest and easiest way to treat the condition is to rub your gums with liberal amounts of hydrogen peroxide, which helps wash away diseased tissue. Also, PerioGard, a solution of chlorhexidine gluconate, provides antimicrobial action that could help heal the condition as well.
Since I didn’t get my teeth cleaned on a regular basis during the so-called Great Recession, I now need to get my teeth scaled, a deep cleaning procedure that costs around $900. Darn! I should have listened to my own good advice and kept getting my teeth cleaned on a regular basis – at least once per year! Periodontal scaling is supposed to clean away plague and calculus that build up under the gum line and thereby prevent the onset of gum disease – gingivitis or periodontitis, both of which can lead to continual pain and/or tooth loss. Please keep in mind that if you don’t get this procedure when you need it, plaque and calculus can get so deep beneath your gums that dental surgery will be required to remove it!
Wisdom Teeth and Molars
You have to wonder why nature – or God – made wisdom teeth because they’re totally useless. Many people have them removed at a young age, which is the smartest thing to do, because more often than not, when they come in, they may wreak havoc on the rest of your teeth. I’ve had only one of my four wisdom teeth removed. This one had vertical impaction, meaning it hadn’t erupted completely through the gum. Since I needed a bridge put in that part of my mouth, the wisdom tooth had to be extracted. But I still have three horizontally impacted ones, which I’ve seen on X-rays. From time to time, they can “rumble” as it is called, affecting the nerves of other molars in the area, and then you may think you need a dreaded root canal. So if any of your molars start to hurt, go to the dentist at this point and get an expert diagnosis. Your sinuses can also affect your wisdom teeth and other molars, actually making them ache. This happened to me recently, and I was nearly rapturous when the doc told me I didn’t need a root canal!!!
If you needed braces when you were young, or not so young, you could have problems with your teeth not being aligned properly, a condition known as malocclusion or “bad bite.” This means when you bite down on food or whatever, your teeth don’t meet evenly and efficiently, causing slippage, which can cause your teeth to grind or slip across each other. This condition can damage teeth, crowns, filings or gums. Unfortunately, I have this problem, mainly on the right side of my mouth, where it sometimes causes non localized pain in the upper or lower jaw - and even into the eye socket! Luckily, this condition tends to last only hours but can be rather painful unless you pop pain pills, preferably acetaminophen. Alas, there’s no quick, inexpensive fix for malocclusion. To remedy the condition, you may need braces and/or jaw surgery.
If you can’t afford braces or jaw surgery and the occlusion on one side of your mouth is worse than the other (like mine), try chewing your food only on your good side for days or weeks, after which your malocclusion may improve somewhat. Or you could visit your dentist and see if he or she can improve matters by shaving down one or more of your teeth or crowns, thereby giving your teeth more clearance as you bite into or chew your food. Good luck!
Is It Gum Disease or Do I Need a Root Canal?
Gum disease is another problem that can make you think you need a root canal. Since gum disease attacks the gums, which can become swollen, reddish and sensitive to touch, a tooth in the area may be adversely affected. Essentially, the tooth loses some of its support. Use a finger to probe around these swollen gums. If the pain is not very intense and doesn’t linger, it probably is gum disease. At this point rejoice, because you don’t need a root canal! However, you better treat the gum disease sooner rather than later or you could end up losing a tooth. If you want a definite diagnosis, you could always see the dentist, but an emergency visit costs about $200, plus the cost of x rays.
Once you have a tooth that's so damaged that it needs additional support (your dentist will advise you when this happens), you'll need to get a crown. Crowns are made of gold alloy or porcelain. Gold crowns are more durable but the sight of them is quite obvious in one's oral cavity. Gold crowns are also more susceptible to hot or cold. Porcelain crowns, however, can look perfectly natural and have virtually no sensitivity. Crowns cost from $700 to $1,500 a pop. An article on WebMD says that crowns last from five to 15 years, but I have one (my first) that lasted over 30 years. However, the tooth underneath has recently needed a root canal, my fourth. The necrotic root abscessed badly – in just two days! It took three months and four prescriptions of Amoxicillin to dry up the abscess, saving the tooth. So once you get a tooth crowned, you can't forget about it, because decay or necrosis can still get at the tooth underneath.
The aforementioned 30-year-old crown was replaced in 2016, and because the procedure needed a little extra support work, the new crown cost about $2,000.
When a tooth is beyond help, you'll need an extraction. Some dentists don't do extractions, so you may have to visit a dental surgeon. For anesthesia, you can get Novocain or receive a sedative intravenously. (When I got two teeth pulled, including a wisdom tooth, I got numbed with Novocain and didn't feel a thing.) However, once the tooth is extracted, you'll have a hole in your mouth to deal with. Missing teeth can cause the remaining ones to move around, creating gaps and possible collisions. How do you fill this cavern? Keep reading.
To fill a hole left by an extraction, you'll need to have a bridge put in. There are many different kinds of bridges. The most common one is a Traditional Bridge - which I have - and comprises three teeth in a row. The two outside, or abutment teeth, are used as anchors for the bridge, while a false tooth, or pontic, covers the hole where the tooth was extracted. Bridges cost between $4,000 and $5,000. Please be aware that you probably shouldn't use teeth that have had root canals as abutment teeth, because if one of these root canals fails, you may have to replace the entire bridge! And at this point you may want to . . . jump off a bridge!
When bridges can't be used, you'll need artificial implants. Fortunately, I've had no experience with implants, but I know they are very expensive - $2,500 to $5,000 per tooth. Back in the 1970s, I had a friend whose mouth was filled with small teeth prone to decay. He replaced those teeth with implants, costing him approximately $10,000. These days those same implants would cost eight to ten times as much, or more! Unless you're rich or at least upper middle class, pray that you never need any of those damn things.
ClearChoice is making bold statements in their advertisements regarding dental implants. As far as I can tell, ClearChoice says they can do a mouthful of implants in just one day. This claim is almost certainly a load of BS. In fact, you should never have a tooth extracted and replaced with an implant in the same day! The resultant hole in the gum and bone will need months to heal. Also, ClearChoice states these implants will cost from $500 to $2,000 per tooth. Yes, this cost is relatively cheap. So, if you can afford this cost, maybe getting their implants is a reasonable option. But keep in mind that many people who have had implants complain how much trouble they are! At any rate, before you act, peruse the Internet for testimonials.
While checking the Internet for reviews regarding ClearChoice dental implants at the end of 2016, I noticed that everyone is paying at least $1,000 per tooth for ClearChoice implants, and considerably more if you need extractions, cleaning, gum work or bone grafts. Of course, some people can’t get implants because their bones are not strong enough to receive the implants, which must be screwed into the bone. At any rate, you could spend $30,000 to $60,000 if you need all of your teeth replaced. There are houses that sell for that much!
If you're one of those people who clench, grind or gnash your teeth, then you should use a night guard while sleeping. This thing form-fits to your upper teeth and helps prevent the chipping of teeth. I've used one for a couple years now, and it isn't much of a bother. How much does one cost? My dentist charged me almost $500, back in 2006. Here's a tip. Don't buy one from a dentist. You can purchase one on the Internet for $15 to $25 or, better yet, go to a department store and buy a sports mouthpiece for . . . one dollar. Wow, did I get ripped off! I should have sued my dentist for taking advantage of my ignorance and stupidity!
How to Save Money on Dental Work
I can't provide much advice on getting cheap or free dental care. You could purchase some of that cheap dental insurance, also called a dental discount plan, with which you have to use "their" dentists. If their dentists are competent, you could save hundreds of dollars; otherwise, you could end up spending even more money in the long run. My dentist charges top-dollar, but he's damn good. The competence of a "cheap dentist" should always be suspect. Be that as it may, some dentists charge as much as 40 to 50 per cent less for fillings, root canals and crowns. So, if you’re living on a fixed income, you may want to find a dentist who charges less for these procedures.
Then there's the option of getting the work done in Mexico, where you could perhaps save even more money. Also, you can try getting some free dental work at a dental college. However, most of those operations only provide preventive care such as cleaning. The dental colleges that do restorative work such as root canals can only be found in the schools of large population centers, such as the University of the Pacific in the San Francisco Bay Area. Good luck!
When to Say "The Heck with It!" and Get Dentures
If, at some point, you realize that keeping your natural teeth in good working order is simply too expensive, you may consider replacing them with dentures. A full set of dentures can cost from $1,500 to $3,000. Dental insurance could also help pay the bill, of course.
If you're fortunate to be born with strong teeth that are resistant to decay, consider yourself lucky indeed. And if you don't even need braces, and your teeth are movie-star white, then you're darn near as good as nobility. But if you're like me and millions of other poor working class schmucks and have average teeth at best, be ready for a lifetime of trouble, pain and expense. Maybe you ought to do yourself a big favor right now and get them all yanked. Better yet, to save money, do the job yourself. Get some pain-killers, a pair of pliers, listen to a little AC/DC . . . and go for it. At any rate, whatever you do, I'm pulling for you!
© 2008 Kelley Marks