The History of Painless Dentistry

herbs were the major form of painkiller in historical dentistry

Toothache, tooth decay and painful procedures were the mainstay of ancient dentistry. While practitioners of the dental craft have existed for thousands of years, their techniques often did little to relieve pain, although they generally relieved the patient of a tooth! Modern, painless dentistry is long removed from the crude procedures of the past, but it is interesting to see just how far the dental practice has come from its “roots.”

Historical Methods of Dentistry

Ancient painkillers did little to dull the pain. If drugs were available, potions made from opium, mandrakes or Indian hemp would be tried. Lacking these, there were always large quantities of alcohol. To imagine the process of healing a cavity or infected root canal, consider the tools of dentistry that were available. Sharp instruments would gouge out decay, followed by a hot iron to cauterize infected pulp. Finally, heated metal would be pounded into the cavity, forming a filling. You can guess that no amount of herbal treatment or booze would make such a procedure easy to experience! It took a tremendous toothache to make such suffering seem worthwhile. Many simply elected to have the tooth extracted. For loose and rotting teeth, this may have been readily accomplished, but life-threatening infections were common thereafter.

Modern Anesthetics Appear

As early as the 1200’s, sweet vitriol was developed in Spain. By the 1500’s, a Swiss scientist tried the substance on a chicken and noted that it put the animal to sleep and stopped all sense of pain — it was an anesthetic! No one tried it on human beings, however, and it wasn’t until the 1700’s that developments in scientific chemistry led to the production of a number of anesthetics. Sweet vitriol became “ether” at the hands of German chemists, and nitrous oxide, called “laughing gas,” was publicized by British chemist Humphry Davys. In the other hemisphere, Seishu Hanaoka of Japan developed a six-drug mixture called mafutsusan that he used for a surgical operation in 1805 and continued to demonstrate during his career. Unfortunately, despite these findings, doctors and dentists were slow to recognize the potential in these new chemicals for saving their patients from significant pain.

Anesthetics Put to Use

For decades after their discovery, laughing gas and ether were little more than party drugs and exhibition substances — much like going to see a hypnotist at a fair. It was during such a demonstration of foolishness under laughing gas that U.S. dentist Horace Wells observed a man gash his leg against a bench, but feel no pain. In 1844 he decided to try the drug himself for dentistry, having his own tooth extracted under nitrous oxide. The results were fantastic.

Ether’s anesthetic properties had been put to use not long before and in similar circumstances. It too was tried for dentistry by William Morton in 1846. He actually participated in an oral surgery, removing a growth from under a patient’s jaw. Chloroform, a recent discovery in 1831, was likewise used for anesthesia in 1847. Finally, dentistry had anesthetics that worked when serious, painful procedures were necessary.

Modern Pain Treatment and Sedation

The Sacramento Dentistry Group makes use of all the modern sedation therapies available for dentists. We offer localized anesthetics that keep you fully conscious but numb the area of operation. We offer sedatives, through oral conscious sedation, that keep you calm and reduce anxiety during procedures. In some patients, although you’re awake, when the drugs wear off you have no memory of the procedure itself. We still make use of nitrous oxide and when absolutely necessary, usually for oral surgery patients, intravenous sedation is available.

Don’t Delay Dental Treatment!

Ancient sufferers from toothache would delay treatment until the pain was unbearable. Modern dental patients do not ever need to experience such tooth pain. Regular visits to your dentist prevent the decay the leads to toothache. Modern anesthetics prevent agony and anxiety both during and after necessary procedures. If you experience “dental anxiety,” we encourage you to visit our offices and learn how you can experience painless dentistry through modern medicine.

Sacramento Dentistry
  • Myra
    Posted at 14:23h, 02 November Reply

    Whoa, the descriptions of historical methods of dentistry sound terrible! Too bad it was so long before anesthetics were put to use and I’m glad I am living now and not back then.

  • Jessica (@squareduptweets)
    Posted at 17:35h, 21 November Reply

    That made me grimace. For anyone who is so afraid of the pain they are not going to the dentist, I heartily recommend laughing gas. The few times I used it, it was great. At one point during a drilling, I thought the dentist was a tiny little man standing on my teeth with a little plastic pick ax. I opened my eyes and saw he was outside my mouth, but it still didn’t hurt. Go for the gas and get your mouth in shape, it can actually be kind of fun!

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