Dentists? I've had a mouthful of them: Susan Elkin looks back in anger on a lifetime of treatment that was GBH of the teeth

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DENTISTS seem to have had it in for me for nearly 50 years. Sometimes it feels like a personally targeted conspiracy - until I remember that my, sorry, decades-long, tale of over-zealous dental mismanagement is common to millions in my generation. And it continues: the need of dentists to make a good living remains paramount, although the emphasis has changed.

When the NHS and I were aged about five, my parents, swept along by welfare state propaganda, signed me up. Every six months or so the dentist poked about and cheerfully filled. He was always kept busy. On one occasion it was 11; on another, not long after, 13. I, and most of my friends, had literally dozens of fillings done during those years. The cause could hardly have been excessive confectionery: sweets were still rationed.

I had no toothache or discomfort, but because the dentist was an 'expert' my mother, not unreasonably, trusted him and insisted, despite my protestations, that the treatment go ahead. There was endless agonising drilling into what I am now convinced were sound teeth. At that time no one dreamt, of course, of offering a mere child any kind of anaesthetic for a filling. The inside of my mouth quickly became the troublesome black metallic sea that it is today. Only the front incisors escaped intact.

In between times there was indiscriminate ripping out of perfectly good milk teeth in batches of four at a time - and sometimes a few second ones for good measure - 'to make room for the others'.

I vividly recall, at about seven, stumbling dazed, battered and bleeding out of the dentist's room into my father's arms in the waiting room. So distressed was he by my condition that he was afraid to take me home to my mother, who would have been devastated. We drove about for ages and parked in a side street while he tried to calm me - and staunch the bleeding and weeping - before we went home.

The legacy of all this is at least threefold. First, dentists were constantly telling us that if we cleaned our teeth 'properly' (four minutes hard brushing up and down was the recommended method) we would not get 'decay' and could avoid fillings. Well motivated, I did it assiduously for years, with the result that by the time I was 19 my gums were painfully receded - an incurable problem I have endured ever since.

Second, my tired old fillings - nothing like as reliable as the bits of teeth they replaced so needlessly and painfully - are constantly chipping and falling out. However much I seek to eschew dentists, I have to go every few weeks to have one or more fillings replaced. I have found a patient gentleman (in every sense) who repacks the jagged holes and gets rid of the razor edges. Those early NHS butchers certainly ensured steady work for their successors.

'My' man also copes kindly with my fear - the inevitable third part of the legacy. Even I have to admit that it doesn't hurt any more, but my tension is very deep seated. I am capable of fainting when the local anaesthetic is administered. I need help writing the cheque afterwards because I can't control the pen.

Today invasive dentistry has changed its face, but the principle is identical. Children no longer have many fillings. Orthodontics is the thing now. Enormous numbers of children in their early teens have mouths encased in masses of disfiguring metal. Some have serious difficulties eating and talking. And they are made to suffer this during the delicate years when they are at their most acutely sensitive about their appearance. They lose many hours of school time, too, since most orthodontic clinics insist on monthly appointments.

Made sceptical by my own history, I cannot believe this 'treatment' is necessary on this scale. Surely nature gets teeth right most of the time and is best left to get on with it? Just as my teeth should have been left largely undrilled so, I am convinced, the majority of those submitting to orthodontics today should be left alone.

As it is, dentists and orthodontists continue lucratively to exploit the fears of parents who want to do the very best they can for their children. It's high time some Henry Fordian common sense prevailed among dental practitioners: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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