Some people utterly despise going to the dentist. I get it. The face and mouth are a locus of sensory innervation, and a dentist’s tools don’t exactly exude comfort. The grinding, the drilling, the scraping. Someone else’s hands in your mouth. Bleeding gums. Mouth held open, saliva building up, and plaque flying like saw dust in a wood working shop. Me? I actually enjoy it. At least the cleanings. The feeling of having my teeth scraped clean and polished is somehow satisfying. Afterwards, my mouth feels great. I’d go to the dentist every week, if I could. Recently, my dentist told me I needed a filling replaced. The current one was worn out, discolored, and not as smooth as the dentist desired. I’ll spare you the details. She informed me it would likely take less than 30 minutes. Not a problem I thought. So, I made the appointment.

Two days later, I sat into the customary recliner chair. A partner of my usual dentist would be performing the procedure. “Simple” he said. “I just need to numb that tooth and surrounding area and then we’ll get this done and get you out of here.” I panned to my right to see the syringe and needle.

And, that’s when things got interesting…

As a child, most (see almost all) of my baby teeth required extraction. Those experiences were not pleasant. In fact, quite the opposite. With merely a local anesthetic, I would pin my eyelids shut so as not to view the medieval metallic torture tools required to unroot the stubborn (and might I add inappropriately named) “baby” teeth. Not that I needed to see. The sensory experience of pressure, pulling, and vibration combined with the sounds of the tools upheaving teeth from my gums provided more than enough information for my young nervous system to make a judgement of the situation. This sucked. Plus, as I took my position into the torture victim’s dentist’s chair I didn’t miss eying the tools purposefully arranged in an evenly spaced row of exponentially increasing painful possibilities. At least so they seemed. The imagination may be the most frightening tool. I shuddered just looking at them.

My memories of those extractions are fractured, cloudy, and likely a bit inaccurate.

The build up was always horrible. I dreaded the waiting, the anticipation. Subsequently, I continually reassured myself as I received shots of numbing medicine. Shots in the cheek, the gums, and worst of all, the roof of my mouth. Those ones always hurt, that I did remember. I feared the procedure itself. It’s hard to express what in particular was so frightening.. Likely a combination of the unknown, the possibility of pain during (and after), and just the unsettling experience itself. It’s hard to recall the exact content of my self talk and inner experiences. Although, it felt like some type of duel or argument within me. It’s as if I had multiple inner agents all vying for control of reality. A teeter totter between feelings, assessments, and projections of the possibilities. I attempted to balance “being tough” with the acceptance of the reality regarding the horrible nature of the experience. Imagine someone grabbing you by the tooth with a pair of plyers and shaking your jaw about as if to scramble the contents of your skull.

In regards to both quality and intensity, I honestly can’t remember any pain. I do recall pain with pre-procedure shots in the gums and the roof of the mouth. But, no real details, no illustrative adjectives. I also remember a soreness and difficulty eating after the procedures. My most vivid memories are the experience and associated feelings of sitting in the chair prior to and during extraction. By far, the build up was worse than the actual event. I’m unsure how much explanation I received prior, whether distraction was helpful, or how my dentist even acted. But, I  vividly remember how odd the feeling of a numb mouth and cheeks. I couldn’t spit accurately into a sink for hours afterwards. But, boy could I ever drool down my chin and onto my shirt. The sensation of no sensation always amazed me. My cheeks felt as big as balloons.

Oddly, I’m not afraid of needles. When I have blood drawn or receive a TB test I actually watch the needle being inserted. It’s interesting to me, sensorily, visually, and cognitively. Although, on this day, settling in for a routine filling repair, the dentist informed me I needed to receive a shot of local anesthetic…I felt a rush of not just memories, but palpable states, from my childhood. My body tensed, my respiratory rate elevated. I’m sure my heart raced, and my mind immediately went into a manic panic. I was actually frightened. I tried self-talk, deep breathing, and cognitive re-assurance. These were mildly helpful initially.

Instantly, all the fears, feelings, and thoughts surrounding those previous experiences engulfed me. The intensity lasted but a few minutes. But, I definitely wasn’t comfortable. And, I definitely couldn’t escape. I wanted to ask if he was going to inject my gums or the roof of my mouth (I sure hoped not!). He grabbed my lip and cheek. “I’m gonna shake this for a bit then give you a few small injections around that tooth.” Surprisingly, they didn’t hurt at all. The dentist’s demeanor was friendly, calm, and reassuring. Not too upbeat, not too distant, not too involved in my experience, but present. He instructed me to signal to him if I was having any sensation during the procedure. Even in the moment, I was struck by simple behaviors that likely could be helpful to many patients. Explaining details. Laying out expectations and potential time frames. Gently probing for concerns. Allowing for expression. Listening. Despite his gesture of support, again, a sense of dread ballooned from stomach to throat. One of my extractions as a kid began prematurely without enough anesthetic. The sensation of cold steel gripping your teeth and gums followed swiftly by a downward tug will definitely make you appreciate the necessity of blocking afferent sensory information. But, none the less, I appreciated this dentist’s presence.

The filling removal and replacement proceeded smoothly. Sporadically, but briefly, feelings of anxiety or nervousness would creep into my chest. It wasn’t acutely distressing as much as interesting. I found it a challenge to balance experiencing those feelings, attempting to control them (futile), and analyzing them. Oddly, what affected me most profoundly were not the sensations or experience itself, but rather thoughts of my previous dental disasters and the unknown of upcoming future moments. Recently, Jason Silvernail, DPT, DSc, FAAOMPT stated:

If you’re in healthcare you should periodically be afflicted with something you provide care for. Just enough to keep you humble and patient focused. It’s done wonders for how I behave in the clinic over time.

Even though I am not a dentist, I reflect on my recent experience and am inclined to agree with Jason’s assertion. My experience, my “symptoms” were not a product of the pathology (failing filling) per se nor even specifically related to the procedure (filling replacement). This specific individual experience resulted from my personal past colliding with current events. I’m not convinced any specific intervention would have altered my experience. Although, in retrospect, I’d desire a more detailed explanation of the procedure. What locations would the anesthetic be injected? (Please don’t inject the roof of my mouth!) How many times? How much of my mouth would be numb? Straight forward and detailed (but not too detailed) information may have eased my feelings of unrest. Or, maybe they wouldn’t. I don’t know.

What can we glean from these personal events? Obviously, there are limits to what our first person experiences and observations can illustrate. Despite our intimate knowledge of health care, symptoms, physiology, and hopefully psychology, we may actually be prone to under appreciate the cloud of uncertainty and confusion swirling in a typical patient’s head when faced with common healthcare encounters, symptoms, and procedures. But, what insights do they provide about the patient in pain or distress? Those suffering with chronic pain or disability? The patient facing the unknown during a hospitalization? An individual awaiting a procedure? Those recovering from a surgery? Attempting to return to sport? Dealing with the trauma of an ICU stay?

Philosophers and scientists studying human consciousness continue to debate the role of first person experience in creating a framework and understanding of consciousness.

Each patient we see has a lifetime worth of memories that are going to color their experience on your treatment table. –Kenny Venere, PT, DPT

At the very least, our personal experiences may assist in caring. But, maybe there’s more. What would you want when facing the unknown during a hospitalization? What’s helpful when you are in acute pain? An awareness to the needs of the person, not the patient, might be honed through our own personal struggles and reflection.

Patient Questions Gifford

Maybe first person inquiry, reflection, and patient narrative are integral to our practice? It may be time to sit with our patients, and ask. It may be time to rethink rehab.