Root Canals Get No Lovin’

Root Canal awareness week banner

Root Canal Awareness Week 2014. Logo courtesy AAE.

As we get ready to kick off the 8th annual Root Canal Awareness Week on Sunday March 30, it is remarkable to see that root canals are still perceived to be horribly painful and worse than torture. I outlined this myth in one of my Dental MythBuster posts called Dental MythBuster #3 – Root Canals Hurt!

Needless to say, despite that post getting over 12,000 views, the myth lives on in the popular media. Let’s see where:

  • The New York Times, February 7, 2014. “…taxes you pay on your investments has as much appeal as a root canal.”
  • The Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2009. “For the average American, modern air travel has all the appeal of a root canal.”
  • Northwest Indiana News, February 20, 2014. “… the topic of life insurance has about as much appeal as a root canal.”
  • The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2011. “I had a root canal, and that was fun” (this was done in a sarcastic manner).
  • Washington’s Blog, August 26, 2013. “the American people would much rather get a root canal or a colonoscopy than bomb Syria.”

At least in the last example, the procedure is considered more desirable than a regional war and on on the same level as a colonoscopy!

And lastly, we have the President of the United States publicly maligning the procedure in his State of the Union Speech seen here:

So clearly, the procedure is believed to be unpleasant. But shouldn’t we all just stop worrying and appreciate root canals for what they do?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Root Canals

Dr. Strangelove who would not have worried about a root canal

Dr. Strangelove would have loved what a root canal could do (image courtesy

While there are different view on this borrowed line from Dr. Strangelove, there is no ambiguity when applied to the root canal procedure. This procedure helps to save teeth and prevents premature tooth loss.

Once you are adequately numb, you feel no pain during the procedure.

So let’s get this straight. You have a broken down tooth, one that you are at risk of losing. A procedure is available, one that does not hurt, that will allow you to save the tooth and not go around toothless!

And despite all the inherent benefits, the procedure is maligned by nearly everyone, including President Obama.

For this Root Canal Awareness week, let’s try to appreciate them. Or, to take inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s film, let’s stop worrying and love root canals!


Dentistry and Art: Caravaggio The Tooth Puller

This dental masterpiece happens to be one of the most famous paintings by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio (Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 1571 – 1610).  It is also one of my favorite Baroque paintings depicting dentistry.  The Tooth Puller is believed to have been painted in 1609.  As a painting known worldwide, it has different names in different languages, including The Tooth Puller and Il Cavadenti and L’arracheur de dents and Der Zahnzieher.

The “dentist” here is pictured with a slight smile or even smirk on his face.  The onlookers – from the very young boy at left foreground to the older individuals – look on with both anxiety and curiosity.  There is some light in the room, presumably from candles or a fireplace. The woman on the right, with her sunken-in profile indicating she likely has no teeth herself, is probably comparing her experiences having teeth extracted to this scene.  The “patient” is grabbing the chair with one hand and his left hand is open and stiff. He is in obvious pain from the tooth extraction.

The Tooth Puller by Caravaggio, Il Cavadenti, Der Zahnzieher, L'arracheur de dents

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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.


Dentistry and Art: The Tooth Puller

One of my many dental hobbies outside of clinical practice is the appreciation of artwork portraying dentistry.  Specifically, Baroque and Renaissance paintings showing dentists (or people pretending to be dentists) are among my favorites.  It is always a reminder of how far dentistry and dental care has come along!

The painting below is by the Dutch Baroque era painter Gerard van Honthorst (1599 – 1656).  His name is also spelled Gerrit Van Honthorst and he is frequently referred to Gherardo della Notte (Italian for Gerard of the Night).  This painting is most commonly called The Tooth Puller or The Tooth Extractor.  This masterpiece is currently in the Musee du Louvre in Paris.

Gerard Van Honhorst Painting showing a dentist pulling a tooth with onlookers and no local anesthesia

This painting is dated 1627.  Here we see a dentist standing behind the patient pulling a tooth. Note that in dentistry today, oral surgery is still performed standing up.  When I remove a tooth on a patient, I am always standing up. Notice how the dentist is not putting his knee or foot on the patient’s chest for extra leverage, contrary to today’s myths.

In the painting, we can see 5 observers, each keenly eyeing the procedure.  The graphic details make us wonder what the onlookers were thinking nearly 400 years ago.  Whatever they were thinking, we can all say that the 5 observers are glad that they are not the one in the chair!

This “tooth pulling” is being done without any numbing as the first local anesthetic, cocaine, was not used until the late 1800s.  The “dentist” is not wearing gloves. And do you think his “pliers” were sterilized beforehand?

This painting, with its graphic details, should make everyone appreciate how far dentistry has come since 1627.