So, I was hoping that my resorbing molar would hang in there at least until the summer. Not to be. After a brief hiatus a few weeks ago, the tooth began acting up, with no signs of abating. Last Monday, I realized I needed to take action, because the coming weeks are busy with Passover and travel plans, not to mention my birthday later this week, which I was not about to ruin with a toothache.

Fortunately, my periodontist was able to fit me in last Wednesday. I tried not to think about it too much in advance, and there wasn’t much time to angst, anyway. A good thing, because it is such an unpleasant experience. My periodontist is very skilled and has incredible patience, both essential to extracting a big molar from the back of my jaw when I can’t fully open my mouth due to skin that remains somewhat tight. But it’s a struggle—for both of us.

The main problem, other than simply getting all the tools in my mouth and the constant tugging at my less-than-flexible lips, was that the ligament surrounding my molar had been destroyed, thanks to scleroderma. This is the membrane that enables the tooth to wiggle when loose and be easily pulled out. Instead, as had been the case the last time I had this procedure done, the roots of my very big molar had fused to my jawbone. So he had to drill them out. Not fun. I tried to calm myself by listening to the soothing classical music in the background and focusing on my breath, which definitely helped.

Because he had to drill so deeply, it took a lot of novocaine to numb my nerves. He finally used a combination of novocaine and epinephrine, which has the advantage of intensifying the local anesthetic, but the very big downside of causing my heart to race and giving me the shakes for a while after the shot. I absolutely hate the stuff, but had not realized I hadn’t told them in advance. So that detail will go into my chart for next time.

The whole process of extricating the molar, taking an X-ray to see if he’d gotten the whole root, drilling some more, then inserting the implant and stitching me up again, took about two (very long) hours. Knowing it would be hours more before the novocaine wore off (my body processes anesthesia very slowly), I drove 45 minutes back to my home pharmacy, picked up medication (and was pleased that my new Medicare Part D pharmacy card works), got home, finished up loose ends of work, and then lay down with an icepack on my jaw. (Icepacks are tricky, because they can set off my Raynaud’s, but better to put up with that than have a really swollen face.)

Five days later, my jaw continues to heal. Swelling is receding. One of the stitches already fell out on its own, as expected. It’s not comfortable, but significantly improved from the nerve pain that was only going to get worse if I waited any longer. I charged the expense to one of our travel credit cards, so at least we’ll get some points from the ordeal.

I’m glad it’s over, and that it will be mid-summer, at least, before the next step of drilling and inserting the post for the crown. I’m also glad that the gap in my teeth is not visible, so I don’t have to look like Alfred E. Newman for the next nine months. I’m very grateful that we have the resources to deal with this, and I really, really hope that it will be years more before I have to go through it again.

And, so, another tooth bites the dust.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Daniel Frank

Chew on This

Last week was one of those weeks when I burned up a lot of time going to, being at, and going home from medical appointments. Most were routine and anticipated, but one was not: a visit to my periodontist.

One of the rarer complications of scleroderma is resorption of tooth roots. As my periodontist has explained it to me, my body thinks some of my teeth are invaders and begins to attack the roots like PacMan (albeit much slower). I’ve lost four teeth to this phenomenon over the years. Two were lower rear molars that were simply extracted, and two others involved extractions and implants. My dentist has identified two other teeth that are endangered and has been monitoring them for years.

A couple of weeks ago, one of those teeth announced it was not happy, provoking unpredictable waves of sensitivity in my jaw that felt like a dull ache. I have no idea what caused it to spark. I was not pleased.

When I saw my dentist to get his opinion, he was quite candid. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I would need to go through the expensive process of another extraction, implant and crown. So I made a follow-up appointment with my periodontist to see what steps I needed to set in motion.

By the time I saw him last Wednesday, the tooth was calming down. He took a look and confirmed that my molar was, indeed, on the way out. But he also said that it was really up to me to determine when to take action. If the pain were tolerable or even reduced to background noise, I could leave it be until it inevitably got worse. I could also just have it extracted and skip the implant, but that didn’t make a lot of sense, given the fact that I don’t want to have any more issues chewing and swallowing than I already have (more complications from scleroderma and Sjogren’s Syndrome).

So, I decided to wait. Sure enough, a week later, the molar is relatively silent. I know I will undoubtedly have to deal with it over the summer, but at least I don’t need to jump.

This decision is made more complicated by the fact that I have to switch over to Medicare by the end of the month. All of the supplemental dental plans have a 12-month waiting period for the kinds of procedures involved—unless I stick with my current provider, in which case they might wave that waiting period, but I have yet to confirm.

Even with dental insurance, for which you pay a decent chunk of change, there is typically an annual benefit cap of about $1,000 or a little more. As my periodontist observed, I have to be really sure the premiums are worth it, given that what I’d receive is only about an eighth of what the process will cost. The net benefit is small.

While I’m fortunate to have the financial means to have options, the tradeoffs are infuriating. Why is dental insurance so lousy? Especially as you get older, keeping your teeth is as important to your overall health and well being as staying in shape. It’s not a vanity project. It’s about being able to eat comfortably and safely. It’s also about avoiding complications of infections and other serious dental health issues. But so many people cannot afford the care necessary to preserve their teeth that the simple act of smiling is a very visible marker of social class and economic disparities.

All of which is to say that as our nation wrestles with the question of whether and how to provide universal health care, we must make sure the conversation includes dental health care, as well. Our mouths aren’t separate from our bodies. We can’t just swallow the status quo.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Umanoide (And no, those aren’t my teeth.)


Crowning Glory

At long last, ten months after I had to have a painful molar extracted, I finally have a full set of teeth. Nasty old 19, which nearly ruined a weekend vacation in New York City last May, has been replaced by an implant.

None of this has been fun. My scleroderma creates many complications for dental work, especially much difficulty opening my jaw wide enough for my dentists and hygienists to manipulate all the probes and pics and suction tubes and needles and pliers needed for the various steps in the process.

Despite the fact that the roots of my molar had resorbed to the point of exposing the nerve—a rare complication of scleroderma—pulling the damn thing out of my jaw was quite the ordeal last spring. My periodontist, whom I trust implicitly, had to drill it into pieces and extract it by segments, because the roots just didn’t want to let go.

After my gums healed up, the next step was a bone graft. Then setting in the foundation for the implant. All of this required long visits, a lot of Novocaine, and much pulling and stretching of my lips and cheeks, which don’t have much give. Plus months for my gums to heal, in-between. 

Finally, in February, I was ready to go back to my dentist and get impressions made for the crown. He, like my periodontist, understands how hard it is for me to keep my mouth open wide and is always as careful as can be, apologizing whenever I wince. But there’s just no getting around it—even when he uses the smallest tray for the impression or whatever, it hurts. I always feel like my lips or cheeks are about to tear.

Last week, my new 19 arrived. I went to the dentist Wednesday afternoon, looking forward to getting it over with, at last, and being able to chew thoroughly once again—without taking twice as long as normal (which is long enough already) to eat a meal. My dentist tested the placement three times, made adjustments and set in the molar. But when the cement dried, it had settled too close to the next tooth, so he had to jigger it a bit so a piece of floss would pass between the two teeth.

When I left, I noticed a crunching sound inside the molar when I bit down, but I told myself it was okay. I enjoyed chewing a piece of gum—on both sides of my mouth—on the drive home. But by evening, it was clear that the crown was loose. I could click it with my tongue. Saliva was pooling under the base. The left side of my tongue was really sore from all the poking and prodding earlier that day.

So on Friday, I made another 80 mile round trip, back to my dentist, to have the crown reset. I was frustrated, but there was no point in getting angry about it. I can’t open wide, and that makes it much harder for my dentists, no matter how good they are, to do what needs to be done.

Fortunately, this time, the procedure was successful. Ninenteen is now firmly in place. My tongue has healed up from the second round of poking and prodding, and my inner cheek has gotten used to feeling a tooth instead of a gap. I’m still relearning how to chew on the left side. I can’t sense food through the crown the way I can with a real tooth, so it’s taking some practice.

We’re still catching up with all of the dental bills, too. Insurance only covered about a fourth of the $7,500 total—better than nothing, certainly, but still. Talk about sticker shock.

But I can chew again. You don’t realize how important each tooth is until you lose one. Missing that molar has increased the risk of gagging on food, which happened far too many times over the past ten months. I’m grateful that I have excellent care, that I’m able to work my schedule around all these appointments, and that we’re managing to pay for it. There will undoubtedly be another tooth that needs replacing at some point in the future, but, with any luck, it won’t be any time soon.

Meanwhile, pass me the biscotti.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Photo Credit: Kitchen Wench via Compfight cc

Tale of the Tooth

I hate going to the dentist.

It’s not that I don’t like the professionals who take care of my teeth. They are all wonderful, dedicated people. It’s just that there is no easy way for anyone with adult-sized fingers to maneuver around my teeth and gums without painfully stretching my mouth. The skin around my lips is simply too tight for me to open wide.

So, this past week, I was not looking forward to the visit to my periodontist for an implant—the second step of three to replace a molar lost this past spring to root resorption, a rare and very frustrating, painful complication of scleroderma.

This is the second time I’ve had to have a tooth replaced because the root resorbed. The last episode occurred maybe five years ago, and the tooth came out easily because most of the root had dissolved. But drilling to create room for the post was awful—I apparently have a dense jaw, a good thing. However, it took what felt like an hour to drill deeply and widely enough to accommodate the post. Even my periodontist remembered the ordeal.

I prepared for the appointment by shoving it out of my mind. Extracting the tooth back in the spring was no fun at all. It took more than an hour of drilling, breaking the molar into segments to get it out, long roots and all (the root had resorbed sideways into the nerve, rather than lengthwise).

Tuesday arrived, and I was even a few minutes early for my appointment. But construction work in my periodontist’s office building over the Labor Day weekend (so much for Labor Day) had left the practice with no running water when they arrived in the morning, and resolving that issue delayed all appointments. So I buried my nose in a fashion magazine as a distraction.

An hour later, it was finally my turn. Time to lie back, with my head lower than my feet, stare at the ceiling and await Novocaine. Always at this point in any dentist visit, when I know they have to stick needles in my gums, I have to focus on my breathing to manage my panic impulse.

Fortunately, they used a topical anaesthetic, first, which reminded me of Smith Brother’s cherry cough drops (used to love those as a kid, but no more). It dripped into the back of my throat, giving me the icky sensation of not quite being able to swallow, but it successfully numbed my gums enough to reduce the bee-sting pain of the Novocaine shots. Soon the slicing and drilling began.

This is where things got dicey. My periodontist is a real pro, and he understands the constraints of my mouth, but there is just no way to avoid pulling at the corners. Between the tools and the drill and the suction and probing fingers, I was stretched to the max, with no give. It hurt, even with Vasoline on my lips to ease the strain.

Mercifully, this time the drilling went more easily, and the whole procedure, from shots to stitches, took about an hour. I drove myself home, my mouth still very numb, walked in the door, got changed into comfortable clothes, swallowed a Vicodin, got an icepack for my jaw (even with Raynaud’s, this felt good, surprisingly), and lay down on the couch for the rest of the afternoon.

By the next day, I was able to manage the pain with just Tylenol and Ibuprofin. A week later, the swelling is virtually gone, most of my stitches have dissolved, and the gum is healing well. The tears at the corners of my mouth have healed, and I feel almost back to normal.

So, I’m grateful. The procedure is costing a small fortune, because our dental insurance barely approaches the total, but I’d rather have a molar than a gap in my jaw. I’m glad I can have an implant and a crown (that step will wait another three to four months for total healing) rather than dentures, which would be a nightmare with Sjogren’s dry mouth.

A few other teeth are resorbing, but I hope they will take their own sweet time. Meanwhile, much as I hate going to the dentist, I’m sure glad I went.

Photo Credit: purplemattfish via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.