Wow, now that’s quite a headline. Am I really trying to tell you that your teeth can bring you the best that life has to offer and also the worst? Yes, I am. Why? Because I see examples of this on a regular basis in my profession. Your teeth are amazing little creations, something I’m sure only a dentist can truly appreciate. But considering what they can do for us and do to us, sometimes others can appreciate this as well.
First, a caveat: the terms “best” and “worst” are highly subjective, especially when you’re experiencing one or the other. I think the best way to illustrate these extremes is to tell a story of a patient I saw about seven years ago at an event in Minneapolis called the Project Homeless Connect.
I like to participate in volunteer events when I can, providing free dental care to those who can’t otherwise afford it. We do what we can given the limits of our facilities, but mostly we’re dealing with pain and infection control. With my surgical background I was placed on extraction detail. My third patient of the day was Julia (not her real name). Julia was 19 years old and she said she wanted all of her teeth out because she was in constant pain. I was skeptical at first, usually dental pain comes from one source even though it might hurt all over. We took some X-rays and I did an exam.
It turns out Julia had been on methamphetamine for the last nine months and had developed a condition called “meth mouth.” She was finally drug-free by the time I saw her, but the damage had been done. Meth causes dry mouth and paranoia; the dry mouth leads to heavy sugary soda consumption and the paranoia leads to teeth grinding. In a very short time a person’s oral health can go from excellent to hopeless. In Julia’s case I ended up extracting her remaining 31 teeth.
At this point in her life Julia had experienced the worst that her teeth could offer: constant pain, poor speaking ability, embarrassment for the horrible appearance, and shame for the lifelong reminder of the poor decisions she made. At least she had taken the first steps to recovery, and the organizers of the event were going to make her a set of dentures. The dentures will help restore her appearance and allow her to chew, but they are far from a perfect solution. With no teeth she will continue to lose bone from her jaws, which will require new dentures as time goes on, with each set fitting more poorly than the last.
When it comes to chewing, tasting, and the overall eating experience, dentures perform about 25% as well as natural teeth, which is why I describe them as “a good option when there are no other options.” The ability to chew, taste, and enjoy food is one of the most basic pleasures we enjoy. People will go to great lengths and spend small fortunes to seek out the best restaurants, or to find the best ingredients and recipes for cooking at home, all for the pleasure of that perfect dining experience. The most important meetings in our life are often centered around food. The ability to properly chew, taste, and experience a great meal is one of the best things that life has to offer.
The last I heard Julia was a candidate for dental implants through a campaign called Donated Dental Services of Minnesota. Implants will perform far better than dentures; they will allow her to chew more effectively, help preserve the bone in her jaws, and may last a lifetime with proper care. I describe implants as the closest thing we have to natural teeth.
For Julia at least there’s hope, she may yet have the opportunity to restore what she’s lost. Unfortunately I lost contact with her a while back so I may never know. From the old saying “the best things in life are free,” it seems clear that the worst things in life can be extremely costly.