Peterson: Who'd really rather have root canal?

One of my teeth on my lower right jaw started to ache several weeks ago, and I thought it was one of those things.

Teeth sometimes hurt. And then the hurt goes away after a few days. No cause for worry.

Except this time, the pain didn’t go away. The throbbing persisted, but good doses of naproxen sodium – I don’t want to advertise for Aleve, as I am not a paid spokesperson – eased the throbbing quite well.

But how many weeks do you taken naproxen sodium before you think something must be wrong?

I think the answer is three weeks.

That’s when I called my dentist, whom I hadn’t seen in two years, much to my chagrin. I thought for sure I had been in to see him in the past 18 months or so. When I called, I said I was having a toothache, but I needed a cleaning, too.

I was asked whether I needed to come in sooner for the toothache, and I said, no, my teeth need to be cleaned, but could the doctor look at my tooth while I was there, and then take care of that problem?

I thought it was a cavity gone bad. No big deal. And I was doing quite fine with the naproxen sodium, thank you for asking.

Actually, by then, my tooth was throbbing the moment the naproxen sodium wore off.

My teeth were cleaned, and the X-rays examined, and it was determined I needed a root canal, and it needed to start right then and there. That was a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve had root canal done before, and I know I’ve lived through it, and I know it is nothing like it used to be many years ago. But still. It was root canal, and it was the monster under the bed for 7-year-olds.

When people make remarks about things they would rather not do, would really, really rather not do, they often say, “I’d rather have root canal,” or “At least it’s not root canal.” Root canal is a nightmare. And the thing with nightmares is they really aren’t anything but your sleeping imagination run amuck.

When you wake up, everything in the bedroom is the same – safe and sound. Whatever you were dreaming about is gone. You collect your wits and go back to sleep. Or in my case, when I was having regular nightmares, I would stay awake for 15 minutes and have a drink of water before going back to sleep for fear of falling back into the nightmare. I don’t have those anymore.

This root canal would require two more scheduled visits to get rid of all the roots under my tooth. Wonderful.

Dentists use anesthetics to stop the pain caused by drilling and scraping. He never called it Novocain, and I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to dawdle over the needles. When you go to get your blood drawn, you see the needle, and I actually watch the needle break the surface of my skin and watch the nurse try to find the vein. I used to sell my plasma in college, and they used needles the size of the ink cartridges of Bic pens. Didn’t bother me.

But the needles that dentists use are massive crosses between needles and scissors and something in my toolbox. And dentists never let you get a good look at them. They are always just below eye level, and you can see something but not everything, and they are gargantuan. Out of sight, out of mind.

If they flashed the needle in full view in front of your face, I am sure people would bolt out of the chair, run past the reception desk and dash for the door. These needles are scary. And I have no intention of catching a glimpse of them, just to satisfy my curiosity.

These needles are so big and your mouth is so tender that dentists have to swab on a local anesthetic to dull the pain of the needle going in. I’m glad my dentist keeps the needles below my horizon.

Whatever it is that gets shot into your jaw works remarkably well because once the dentist commences with the drilling – the high-pitched, whining drill – you feel nothing although sometimes you get a whiff of something burning, and you try to put that out of your mind.

My dentist is very keen about any pain I might feel, and is apologetic when things hurt a little, and then he gives me another shot. I’ve been in once for a quick emergency root canal two days after the procedure started. Not even naproxen sodium would help the throbbing, and my dentist got me in within the hour to solve the problem.

I’ve been back a third time for a scheduled continuation of root canal, and it went as marvelously as root canal can go. But I have one more appointment to go. And the truth be told, I’m not looking forward to it. It’s root canal after all, and I don’t know anyone who looks forward to it. The monster under the bed lives.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at

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