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Myth-busting: Donkey dentistry and other stories

BDJ volume 216, pages 608609 (13 June 2014) | Download Citation

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Maintaining good oral health should be part of everyone's daily routine but sometimes tradition and superstition get in the way. A perfect example of this was discovered in the BDJ archives from a century ago:

At the Dorset Field Club's meeting on February 3, Mr Rawlence, of Salisbury, quoted instances of superstitious folk-lore in Dorset. As recently as 1910 a leading auctioneer in the county told him he had been suffering from toothache and on the way to the dentist he met an old farmer client, who, learning where he was going, said: 'Don't go there; I'll tell 'ee how to cure it. You go to a young oak tree and put your arms round it and mark the place where your fingers meet. Then hit a slit in the bark with your knife, put your left hand behind your head and pull out some hair behind your right ear, and put it in the slit of the bark and you'll never have toothache again.' (BDJ 1914; 35.)

However fantastical, it is impossible that such measures could do anything to prevent the recurrence of toothache and yet it is not impossible that the auctioneer in this report attempted this creative solution to rid himself of toothache. Whilst the farmer's suggestion might seem ridiculous in the twenty-first century, many old wives' tales persist today and it must be questioned whether there are scientific explanations behind their efficacy or if they are simply inaccurate and potentially dangerous to the patient.

Chewing on cloves to relieve toothache

Cloves have traditionally been thought to cure toothache and this old wives' tale has scientific merit. Cloves contain eugenol, a phenylpropene that is commonly used in medicine and dentistry as a local antiseptic and anaesthetic. Chewing on cloves therefore releases this chemical and can serve to numb and clean the affected area.

Overjet as a result of thumb-sucking

Thumb-sucking is a habit that most parents try to discourage, mainly due to fear that it will result in their child developing maxillary incisors that project forward. Whilst this type of malocclusion can be predetermined by genetics if the lower jaw is smaller than the upper jaw, oral habits such as thumb-sucking can worsen the resultant protrusion by creating outward pressures during growth. However, thumb-sucking is generally not the sole cause of what is colloquially known as 'buck teeth'.

Rubbing whisky on a baby's sore gums during teething

Folklore recommends dabbing whisky on to a baby's gums to reduce the pain of teething and this method has been similarly practised by adults suffering from toothache. As a narcotic, alcohol will numb the pain, but even in small doses alcohol can be toxic to infants and should never be used.

Kissing a donkey to cure toothache

In German legend from the Middle Ages it was proposed that kissing a donkey would take away the pain of toothache. It can only be presumed that attempting this with a member of the horse family could lead to an act of aggression resultant in accidental exodontia, thus removing the painful tooth and source of toothache.

Gain a child, lose a tooth

The old wives' tale that women lose a tooth for every child they bear may be valid. Studies have shown that gingivitis and periodontitis can occur during pregnancy, which if severe and left untreated can lead to periodontal bone loss and subsequent tooth loss.

Eruption of wisdom teeth signifies halfway through lifespan

It was once believed that the eruption of third molars was a marker that one was halfway through their life. Considering the fact that third molars generally erupt in early adulthood at around the age of 20 and until the nineteenth century the average lifespan for Britons was 40 years, this indicator was not wholly inaccurate. However, in the UK today the average life expectancy is around 80, so there is no need to fear unduly when wisdom teeth start coming through.

Placing an aspirin on a tooth instead of swallowing it

Many people believe that placing an aspirin on a sore tooth is more effective than swallowing it. Aspirin, also known as acetylsalicylic acid, can in fact cause swelling of soft tissues such as gums in some patients and needs to be ingested to effectively enter the bloodstream and achieve analgesia.

It may be entertaining to start your own dental myths ... have you heard that chewing on the right side of your mouth increases creativity?

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.bdj.2014.461

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