January 18, 2012

Dental Care On A Budget

One of my upper third molars has an old cap that fell off recently

In the 70's movie Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman plays a character that is tortured by having his teeth drilled without the benefit of anesthetic. Although you might suspect it would, seeing the movie long ago did not give me a dental phobia. But it sure did make me squirm as it highlighted the importance of good dental hygiene, and skilled, non-sadistic dentists.

I thought of Hoffman's character again a few days ago when I pulled an old cap off an upper third molar while flossing. In my hand it looked big and ugly - 30 years of doing major chewing duty had taken its toll. I put it in a small container and brushed my teeth.

The newly exposed nub was sensitive, and even lightly brushing it caused an uncomfortable shock to run through my jaw and face. An evil captor with rudimentary dentistry skills would have loved to take advantage of it with a poky, sharp metal instrument.

I got the shivers, pushed all thoughts of dental-based torture out of my head, and considered how quickly I might be able to see my dentist. I looked forward to relief, but not to the potential large bill.

The problem with keeping teeth happy is the cost - it is not consistent with a low-budget lifestyle. But there are definitely things that you can do to lower the costs for you and your family.

NBA's Tips For Low-Budget Dental Care

  1. The most important way to save money on dental care is to have excellent oral hygiene and general health. Make your dental plan caring for your teeth (brushing 1-3 times/day, floss once/day every day, don't forget to tend to your gums, brush after sweet foods, eat well, exercise, and get plenty of rest).
  2. Find a dentist that is committed to keeping your teeth in your head as long as possible. Just because you 'could' have work done, does not mean you 'should' have it done. A good dentist will work with you to prioritize what must be done, and what would be nice to be done when the money is available. Functional fixes come before the purely cosmetic.
  3. Start an account (or designate a jar) earmarked for your family's dental care. Try to build up enough to cover basic care (check up/cleaning 1-2 times per year), plus a bit more for unexpected care that may be required.
  4. Most schools of dentistry offer discounted, or free services for the general public. They may also offer clinics at various locations run by volunteer dentists. If you have a school in your area, try giving them a call - they are often looking for people, including children.
  5. Number 1 is worth repeating - brush, floss, and take care of yourself. Preventing problems is the most cost-effective way to go... and the least painful.
My dentist was able to get me in the next day. The thought of a $500 - $1000 dollar bill did not thrill me, but neither did being tortured by the tender, unprotected nub of a molar. I grabbed my old, battered cap, and hoped for the best.

I can now report that my dental story had a happy ending. My dentist, knowing me to be a practical, thrifty patient, told me that we could replace the cap, but that it would not be necessary at the moment. He grabbed whatever super glue is used that keeps major capped molars in place for decades at a time, and slapped my old cap back in place.

It only involved a few seconds of torture.

A modest sixty bucks later I walked out sporting a full set of happy choppers. I like my dentist, but I will continue to do whatever I can to stay away from his office for as long as possible. When I do need to go back, the whole affair will be made less unpleasant by the fact that I have budgeted for it.

One last tip - If you are ever held captive by a sadist armed with a crude set of tools, Dentistry 101 knowledge, and only a little bottle of clove oil for pain relief, remember that there is no right answer when he repeatedly asks, "Is it safe?".

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