15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dentists
By Jake Rossen
With offices full of needles, drills, bibs, and employees obscured behind masks, it’s not hard to understand why the dental profession gets a bad rap. But despite the horror movie props, dentists are looking out for you: Maintaining your oral health can have a dramatic effect on your overall well-being. Mental_floss spoke with three dentists and one hygienist to get a better look at this underrated profession. Here are 15 facts to chew on.
1. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THEY ASK QUESTIONS WHEN YOU CAN’T TALK.
Trying to converse with someone after stuffing their anesthetized mouth full of cotton seems counterintuitive—but there’s a good explanation for it. “It’s a distraction mechanism for the patient,” Taylor, a dentist in the Midwest, says. “Otherwise, they’re focusing on every little poke or prod and worried we’re finding something wrong.” Dentists also get pretty adept at learning to decipher your muffled speech: “I had someone the other day who mumbled something, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you need suction.’”
2. THEY CAN’T REALLY SEE YOU.
The reason a dentist might have an assistant nearby during a procedure isn’t always to hand over instruments. “I wear a loupe, which magnifies a tooth 2.5 times,” Taylor says. “So I typically can’t see facial expressions.” The assistant can monitor for grimacing or body language that indicates any discomfort.
3. SOME PEOPLE CAN BE HARDER TO NUMB UP.
Dentist having trouble getting you comfortable? It could be a dietary issue. The local anesthetic used to numb your mouth before a procedure is fat-soluble. If a person has excess fatty tissue, there’s a chance it’ll soak up any injected solution before it has a chance to get to nerves inside the mouth. “Nerve tissue is fatty tissue,” says Eran Gutkin, a general dentist in Seattle. “Anesthetic can get sucked up.” Other possible reasons you’re feeling more than you should: being a redhead—a gene mutation makes them more susceptible to pain—or going in on an empty stomach.
4. THEY’D LIKE YOU TO STOP PULLING OUT YOUR OWN TEETH.
Owing to either fear of treatment or intoxication, a surprising number of people elect to grab their tool bag and go to work on their own throbbing molars. This is not a good idea. “This has happened to me multiple times,” says Safwan, a dentist who practices in the southeast. “They think that it's as simple as getting some alcohol in their system and grabbing the tooth with a pair of pliers. This always results in a broken tooth where the roots still remain in the gums. The patient ends up being in more pain than they started with and we dentists need more time to take these out.”
5. THEY CAN DEVELOP MAJOR BACK AND NECK PROBLEMS.
Anxious as they might be, patients have the luxury of reclining in expensive and ergonomically-friendly chairs while receiving treatment. Dentists and hygienists are a different story: They spend most of their day hunched over your mouth in the most awkward positions possible. “It’s a huge problem,” says Daniel Lopez, a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) in New York. “I’ve been working for four years, and three months in I started noticing neck and shoulder pain.” Lopez began seeing a physical therapist to learn better positioning; Taylor calls postural pain “rampant” and started yoga to help alleviate it.
6. THEY GET ASKED TO MAKE FANGS.
Body modification is still a thing, and dentists are occasionally asked to perform some unconventional alterations. Once, Safwan had someone come into his office asking for his tongue to be split in half; others ask for their teeth to be filed down into a fang shape.
“Technically and legally, we’re allowed to do anything requested,” he says, “as long as it doesn’t create problems with how a patient functions.” Safwan passed on the tongue but indulged a couple who wanted some Halloween flair. “I made the canines pointy with dental filling material for a couple for Halloween and then in November shaved them back down again.”
7. THEY HOARD EXTRACTED TEETH IN JARS.
Laugh about the tooth fairy all you like, but second and third-year dental students (they attend four years of dental school total) are expected to collect disembodied teeth if they want to graduate. “The first two years, you work on mannequins with plastic teeth,” Taylor says. “Then you go around asking dentists for the teeth they pull by giving them a jar full of a preservative. That gives us an opportunity to cut into a real tooth and practice crowns and fillings.”
If you’d prefer your own extracted teeth don’t end up with a student, you can take them home: The dentist will soak them in bleach first, though.
8. IT’S A REALLY HARD, EXPENSIVE PROFESSION TO BREAK INTO.
You might not think there would be an overabundance of people eager to get their hands covered in saliva all day, but dentistry is actually a highly competitive industry. “At the University of Pittsburgh, where I went to school, there were 2000 applicants for 80 spots,” Gutkin says. “And to buy a dental practice is at least $500,000.” Dentists fresh out of school are also likely to owe at least another $250,000 in student loans, according to Taylor.
9. THE FISH TANKS ARE MORE THAN JUST DECORATION.
If you’ve been to multiple dental offices in your lifetime, you know a recurring theme is the aquarium in the waiting room. “It's mainly a form of stress relief for patients in the waiting room that is relatively easy and cheap to maintain,” Safwan says. “The sound of flowing water like the filtering pump is a relaxing sound and is supposed to make a patient less anxious … I personally don't have an aquarium because I have a hard time keeping even a plant alive.”
10. THAT “DENTAL OFFICE SMELL” HAS A SOURCE.
According to Taylor, the distinctive odor of your local dental office is a blend of latex gloves and the fluoride gel used for cleanings. “Being in that environment all day, I don’t really smell it anymore,” she says.
11. THEY HIDE STUFF FROM YOU.
But it’s for your own good. A lot of dental instruments used for cleanings or treatment are kept under cloth and out of sight to help reduce patient anxiety. “Especially with kids,” Taylor says. “They’re always looking for the needle.” Lopez tends to swoop his arm around while handling any anesthetic so it’s out of a patient’s peripheral vision.
12. THE NUMBERS THEY CALL OUT HELP GAUGE YOUR ORAL HEALTH.
Sometimes getting an oral exam feels like visiting a deli: Dentists call out numbers to assistants or hygienists, leaving the patient to wonder if they’re being rated. In a sense, they are. “If I’m calling out 14 or 15, those are tooth numbers,” Taylor says. “But if I’m poking gums and calling out 1, 2, or 3, that’s measuring the bone level.” Those numbers are in millimeters, and measure the distance between the tip of the gum and the bone. From 1-3mm is ideal; 4mm and above indicates some detachment of gum tissue from the teeth, which can harbor bacteria and hint at future problems with periodontal disease if not brought under control.
13. THOSE BIB CLIPS MIGHT BE A LITTLE DIRTY.
Hygienists take great care to prepare examination rooms both before and after each patient arrives. A recent study by Tufts University, however, indicates that the bib clips used to keep those paper spit-catchers around your neck might not be fully sterile. Of 20 clips the researchers tested after use, 40 percent retained aerobic bacteria and 70 percent retained anaerobic bacteria even after disinfection. The study recommends that the industry consider disposable clips.
14. THERE’S AN OPTIMAL TIME OF DAY FOR AN APPOINTMENT.
While you may never be in the mood to get dental work performed, there are times that are better than others when it comes to maximizing chances of success. “Most of our best work is done in the morning after we see our first patient,” Safwan says. “It takes us a patient or two to wake up.” If the office opens at 8 a.m., aim for the 9 to 11 a.m. window or wait until after 1 p.m. “After lunch is probably the worst time,” he says. “Because when our bodies are expending all our energy digesting food, not much is left for dentistry.”
15. NINE OUT OF 10 DENTISTS REALLY DON’T AGREE ON ANYTHING.
Despite what Madison Avenue would have you believe, it’s pretty tough to find a general consensus amongst dentists. “There’s a saying in dentistry that if you show 10 dentists the same x-rays, you’ll get 11 different dental plans,” Taylor says. “It’s not so much about right or wrong. It just depends on how conservative or aggressive a dentist is.” Of course, following hygiene advice in the first place means not having to worry about a second opinion. “Our primary job,” Lopez says, “is to put ourselves out of business.”
All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.