RA Survivors and Dentistry

I have a miserable time at the dentist. It’s not that I’m a chicken; it’s because I was tortured as a child by a dentist or somebody pretending to be a dentist. Over the years I have learned ways to make it a little less unbearable.

First, I tell all new dentists, in general terms, what my background is. I learned this the hard way twenty years ago when I had an emergency and my regular dentist wasn’t available and so sent me to the person who was covering for him. I figured, “I’m only going to see this guy once, so I won’t bother telling him.” I was so anxious that he tried everything he could think of to make me relax. Finally he said, “Just think of me as a witch doctor who make everything all right by magic.” I shot right up in the chair and said, “Don’t talk to me like that! I was abused by a dentist in a Satanic cult.” Shall we say he was startled?

We both calmed down enough to get the procedure done, but my regular dentist said that he was so shaken up that he had to send him a nice bottle of wine to persuade him to continue being on call.

Second, I kept changing dentists until I found a gentle soul. He’s a total gem. He practices dentistry half time, is an MFT and sees clients half time, and is writing a book on treating phobic patients. (Anybody who needs a dentist in San Francisco, just let me know. And you bet I will review his book when it comes out!)

Third, I have figured out some methods to keep myself in the present and out of flashbacks. I have no compunctions about asking for what I need because my dentist and his assistants dislike flashbacks almost as much as I do. Here’s what I’ve learned to do:

I ask them to keep talking about anything at all during the procedure. Hiking, dental school stories, their grandmothers, baseball, whatever. I just need their voices to hang on to and keep me in the present.

I tell them to let me know ahead of time what they are going to do, how much noise it will make, how long it will take. Surprises are not a good idea.

I ask for a lead apron because the weight is reassuring and goggles because they make me feel like my eyes are protected. Apparently I am not a freak; others find the apron and goggles comforting.

Last time, I was asked if I wanted nitrous oxide. I thought I could get through it without it. But why make life harder for myself, if I didn’t have to? I gratefully accepted it.

Nitrous disinhibits and I got relaxed enough to give him some feedback I had kept to myself until that point. (Again, I had made life harder for myself by not speaking up sooner. I think this pattern needs looking at!)

All dentists seem to minimize the amount of pain involved. They must teach them in dental school that the word “pain” frightens patients and it is better to use a euphemism. Well, it’s not. At best it’s annoying, at worst it destroys trust in the dentist. It’s not a “little tinge” or a “pinch” or “you may feel some pressure.” Be honest and call it what it is. “This will hurt moderately for about one minute. Raise your hand if you need me to stop.” I may be dental phobic, but I am still an intelligent adult and I don’t like being lied to.

The other thing I figured out under nitrous is that the torture I had experienced as a child had magnified the nerves’ response to pain.  Repeated stimulation of the nerve-to-brain pain pathway had set me up to be overly sensitive to dental pain for the rest of my life. I checked this out and was told that I was right.  Perhaps some people really do experience a novocaine shot as “a little pinch.” Apparently there are lucky folk who are even able to fall asleep while being given novocaine!!!

So it’s not our fault. We aren’t being sissies. It’s completely sensible to take care of ourselves and soothe ourselves the best we can. We can’t lessen the pain or eliminate the fear; we are stuck with it for life. But we can handle pain and fear in a way that gives us some measure of control, which we never had as children. That in itself is assertive and empowering, well worth doing.

9 thoughts on “RA Survivors and Dentistry

  1. Thank you for this. I am not a good advocate for myself at the dentist or the doctor. I hope I can be more outspoken and take care of myself better so it won’t traumatize me all over again. These ideas are helpful.


  2. Elwin writes: “This is for the post on the Dentist.
    I too had a terrible time at the dentist. He was a torturer. I wanted something for the pain and he pointed to a horse syringe on the wall. It was as big as my little arm was around. It had a long 8 or ten inch needle on it. He said he could give me some Novocain with that. That terrified me more than the pain. We had military insurance I think. At least my dad was a civilian on a military base building nuclear submarines. I was near a military base in Bremerton Naval Ship Yard. Alameda Naval Air Station and Mare Island Naval Submarine Yard/Base. Mix that in with the sexual abuse by my neighbor and I was one messed up kid.”


  3. Great topic! I have an assistance dog and he keeps his head on my lap while I stroke his beautiful face and ears. It just makes procedures a lot easier. I am very lucky in this regard. I want a full description of the procedure, how much pain there will be before we start. And Iwant novocaine for every procedure. I can’t use nitrous oxide because I had a very bad reaction to it years ago. Thanks.


  4. Jean, This is so timely for me. You could switch a few words from dentist to Medical procedures for me and ti all fits. I am now one of those people where I do have to pave the way for myself given my various traumas of being left alone and having to just endure until the people who supposed to care for me go ahead and blunder through and do not listen. IT is a good reminder for me to be so very careful with my care. Thanks, Karen I am doing fine again.


    1. Sandra and you both said it applied to all medical care. (Cars, too, do you think?)

      For me, it seems harder with doctors. Why I am not sure. My first reaction is to defer to them. But why can I be more assertive with dentists? There are so many mysteries still waiting to be solved, even after decades of hard work.

      I am sorry that you were treated so shabbily, but glad to hear you are doing well again.


  5. I will add the “tell me before you proceed” is critical in any medical process (i.e., intimate, annual wellness exams). I didn’t know this blessing until a nurse practitioner did tell me what was about to happen. What a huge difference and after that I knew what to ask for when I walked in the door no matter which sort of medical personnel was attending.


  6. thank you for ‘its not our fault’…went to my regular dentist recently – my mother had gone to him, myself, my sons – and he started drilling before the novocane kicked in. I didn’t freak out, but there are no words. – more betrayal.


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