Archives for February 2013

Dentistry and Art: Mickey’s Toothache

I recently posted about the depiction of dentistry in Baroque art. Let’s fast forward approximately 400 years to something more recent, although this “art” is still from 1938!

The archivists at Disney just released a 1938 sketch of Mickey Mouse experiencing what can only be described as a dental adventure.  The artist Ferdinand Horvath completed the piece for Disney in April 1938.  The sketch was apparently found in a folder with other material in the Disney Archives in California.  As a bit of history, Mickey made his debut in 1928 and had already been featured in comic strips and several movies by the time this sketch was being illustrated.  Fantasia, with its psychedelic influences, was due to be released in 1940, with Mickey Mouse playing a role in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

1938 sketch of Mickey being chased by the dental chair and a dentist

Newly released sketch from Disney called Mickey’s Toothache featuring Mickey Mouse, a dental chair, and a dentist wielding pliers. Image is courtesy of Disney Archives.

The sketch, titled “Mickey’s Toothache”, shows a younger looking Mickey Mouse.  He has a towel wrapped around his head to suggest he has a toothache and his cheeks appear swollen. He is running away from a dental chair whose “arms” have a firm grasp on him. An unidentified character playing the role of the dentist is in hot pursuit despite having what looks like a wooden leg. The “dentist” has both a pair of pliers and a saw.

If you look closely at the sketch, specifically at the back of the chair, you can see where the chair had initially been drawn in and then subsequently erased. It makes you wonder what the sketch initially looked like.

I could probably write much more analyzing all the nuances of this sketch and how it portrayed dentistry back in 1938.  But one generalization can be made:

Steve Martin as the sadistic dentist holding a dental drill

Steve Martin with a drill, 1986.

Up until the development of the air powered dental handpiece (a.k.a dental drill), the most dreaded instrument of the dentist was the forceps (a.k.a. pliers).  With the introduction of the drill and its characteristic noise, the forceps have been replaced by the drill as the “most dreaded dental instrument” that is depicted in the mainstream media.

So the real question is this: if Disney were to make a short cartoon called Mickey’s Toothache 2013, would it involve a drill? A large needle? Forceps? I suspect it would involve a drill.


Dental MythBuster #5 – Placing aspirin on a tooth cures a toothache.

Unlike many other myths in the Dental MythBuster series, this is one I do not see too often.  But I see this myth enough in practice to recognize it and it always follows a predictable pattern:

A patient comes in as an emergency appointment to my office in Orange, CT with distress and anxiety. He/she typically did not sleep well the night before due to the pain and looks disheveled. He or she will say something to the effect of: “Dr. Calcaterra, this tooth has been killing me and keeping me awake at night. I placed aspirin next to the tooth and it didn’t do a darn thing!  Can you help me?”

I perform my usual exam and x-ray and go ahead and diagnose the offending tooth. But I also notice the following:

Photo of when patient placed aspirin on tooth and burned his gums and cheek

White burn on the gums and cheek due to a patient placing aspirin next to the tooth in an attempt to relieve a toothache.

I see the characteristic white, chemical burn from the aspirin on the cheek and gums adjacent to the tooth. Now instead of just having a toothache, the patient is going to have a painful burn on their soft tissue for the next several days!

About Aspirin

Bayer Aspirin - not to be used for toothaches

The full name of aspirin is Acetylsalicylic Acid.  The first part of the name – acetylsalicylic – is not important. The second part of the name – Acid – is important!  I won’t go into the details on what makes a substance an acid, but an acid will burn tissue, especially the moist tissues of the mouth.

Many of us have experienced heartburn (technically called GERD or gastro-esophageal reflex disease) at some point in our lives.  In GERD, stomach acids go up the esophagus and can enter the mouth, leading to a burning pain.  The acid quite literally blisters the soft tissues of the esophagus and the mouth. So if you place aspirin on the gums right next to the tooth, you are putting an acidic substance that is almost as powerful as stomach acid in direct contact with the gum tissue. It is like heartburn of the gums!

In addition, the placement of the aspirin right next to the tooth will do nothing for the tooth pain!

How Aspirin can help with teeth pain

Aspirin works by blocking the production of certain pain chemicals in your blood.  When you swallow an aspirin tab, it is broken down and absorbed by the intestines and then enters the bloodstream.  The acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) then circulates around and interferes with pain chemicals at various parts of your body.  So if you have a headache, the aspirin travels by the bloodstream to the headache area, blocks the pain chemicals present, and you experience pain relief.

Photo of Aspirin on Forehead. This does not help with a headache

Aspirin on your forehead will not cure a headache!

But aspirin (and other pain pills such as Tylenol, Motrin, Aleve, etc.) can only work when they enter the bloodstream. Aspirin placed directly next to your tooth will ultimately enter your bloodstream (the rate at which it enters is dependent on a number of factors – all beyond the scope of this post). Without aspirin in your blood, it will not work. Would you place an aspirin pill on your forehead for a headache? Of course not!

I swallowed the aspirin and my tooth still hurts!

Pain relievers such as aspirin can reduce the feeling of pain, but they do not fix what is causing the pain. If you break your arm, a pain reliever may reduce some of the pain, but you still need to see an orthopedist!  The same goes for a toothache. Often times there is decay into the nerve of a tooth or a dental infection is present.  The aspirin may help, but the only way to get true pain relief is to get definitive treatment from your dentist. That treatment may ultimately end up being either a root canal or an extraction.

So, when you have dental pain, don’t place the aspirin next to your tooth. Call your dentist for an appointment and ask him/her what you should take for pain in the interim.  Until the next Dental MythBuster…

Still convinced that an aspirin next to your tooth helps more than swallowing it? See Part II of this post.