Luck of the draw.

You may have noticed a drop off in both post quantity and quality.  I noticed too, but I couldn’t figure out why.  Turns out I had an infection in my jaw and while I was able to suppress conscious knowledge of the pain, it was still causing quite a lot of it and that made it impossible to concentrate long enough to do the long form deep dive science posts I’m really proud of.  I’m having surgery to remove the infection tomorrow, and hopefully after I recover I’ll be able to tackle my backlog, which includes

  • ASMR
  • zinc for colds
  • common misconceptions about diabetes and obesity
  • More crisis chat observations
  • Why NSAIDs are hard on your GI tract (inspired by recent events)
  • Words I keep hearing while I watch House, the smartest show I am currently capable of watching
  • How narcotics work and why they just don’t in some people (inspired by past events that I am being reminded of in the present)
  • The neurochemistry of learning
  • Non traditional treatments for sensory integration disorders AKA how my occupational therapist learned to stop worrying and love video games
  • The cool stuff my dentist did to help bone regrow perfectly after he removed the gangrenous part that totally worked (anticipated)
  • How much better life is after all my pain and chronic infection went away (desperately hoped for) 

But I don’t have the energy for any of those.  Instead, I’d like to share an essay I wrote the first time I had this surgery, 18 months ago.

My dental surgery was originally scheduled 5 weeks in advance. The pain got worse, they gave me antibiotics. The pain still got worse. It felt like biting tinfoil, which meant whatever it was was interacting directly with the nerve. This would make me nervous if I didn’t already have a broken oral nerve. The periodontist agreed to work outside her usual hours to fit me in in a week (three weeks earlier than scheduled). The pain did get better, but it came in waves and I decided I didn’t want to reschedule again, so I didn’t tell them. The surgery was today.

In many ways, it was the best possible outcome. 30 seconds after cutting (just long enough to clear out the pus), she found aberrations big enough to cause the problem, but no bigger. There was a sliver of broken tooth, presumably left over from my wisdom teeth removal (which was over four years ago), and a lesion that is assumed to be a bacterial cyst unless the biopsy says otherwise.* The lesion was within a few millimeters of the nerve, but not touching it. This is good, because if it was on the nerve my choices would have been nerve damage or never clear the infection.

I don’t have good data on this and the doctor was patently uninterested in playing what-if with me, but it certainly seems plausible that the three weeks between the new date and the old would have been enough to grow the cyst all the way to the nerve. I already have nerve damage on one side and it’s awful, I don’t know what I’d do about both. it’s entirely possible the reason this got so bad was that I’m so good at not hearing pain from my mouth that I didn’t notice it. I know I didn’t report it to the dentist at first because I was too fucking stressed out to deal with it, I just wanted to do the right thing and get my teeth cleaned and I’d deal with the chronic stuff later. If I hadn’t gone in for the intensive cleanings, who knows when this would have been caught? So there’s two paths that lead to nerve damage.

I think this got treated faster in America than it would have in any other country. As I understand it (and good data is woefully hard to find), countries with national health care operate on a pretty strict queue system, and doctors have no incentive to work extra hours. I assume you can jump the queue if you can prove you have a more serious problem, but because the cyst was soft tissue it didn’t show up on an x-ray; the only metric we had was my pain. While my periodontist believed me enough to reschedule the surgery, it was clear that seeing the size of the cyst** caused her to retroactively give my complaints a lot more credence. A queue that can be jumped by claiming more pain won’t do it’s job, so in an NHS world I probably would have been stuck with my original number, which undoubtedly would have been longer than the 8 weeks between my dentist popping the first (smaller, exterior) cyst and now. Socialized medicine could easily have caused me permanent nerve damage.***

On the other hand, I only got seen and operated on that quickly because I have money. Lots of money. Enough money to see my dentist 16 times a year, to take the first available periodontist appointment without worrying about paying for it, to take the first available surgery slot without worrying about paying for it. More subtly, having and growing up with money makes it easier to have the entitled attitude that led me to tell the periodontist this couldn’t wait. When I told (not asked) my boss I needed to move the surgery earlier, but this was better timing for the company anyway, he said “well, it really doesn’t matter how the timing affects us, if you need it now you need it now.” This exactly the sort of care you can make yourself believe doesn’t need to be treated right away, giving the infection time to spread. People die of this.

I prefer a market-based health care system not because our system is working particularly well, but because I believe it has to capability to improve in a way the NHS does not. This ability to change comes at a terrible price, and no matter how much money I donate to dental charities, I’m not the one paying it.

*Me: so is there anything the biopsy could reveal I should be worried about?
doctor: no.
Me: Then why are we doing it?
Doctor: something something best practice

I assume that there is a small but present chance this is something awful, like cancer, and she doesn’t want to have to talk to me about it until we have actual data. Which I’m sympathetic to, but I’m also pissed that I was being asked to decide whether this was worth my money and the cost of a false positive while I was under a quarter milligram of a benzoate, massive amounts of whatever local anesthetic they gave me (which does make me feel mentally weird), and the stress of surgery. This was a predictable outcome of the procedure and they should have asked me ahead of time. 

**Biggest she’d ever removed. She had to leave behind a plug so the gum tissue wouldn’t collapse in on itself, any bigger and it would have required a graft.

***Possible relevant and even more frightening: antibiotics would not have fixed this. My cyst was that huge despite me finishing a course of amoxicillan a week prior.


Looking back on it now, I certainly feel some bitterness that they apparently missed some infection, and that that provider blew me off when I brought my continuing pain to her.  I’m very afraid that there is or will be nerve damage, especially because that makes the chewing that will ultimately solve my digestive problems painful.  But given that I have this problem, I’m still incredibly lucky.  I have even better insurance now than I did last time.  That time I just had the money to take off work, now I have truly astonishing disability insurance. It is hard to feel lucky when your jaw is in screaming pain, and the NSAIDs you took to stop it made your stomach join it, but I still am.

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