Conquering Your Fear of the Dentist with Martial Arts

Fear of the Dentist

I’ve been in the martial arts for almost 40 years; got lots of trophies and ribbons, hold a high rank in several styles, and would like to think that my chi, or ki (internal strength) is very centered. The mental calm of the arts has helped me to perform well under stress and to stay focused when things are falling apart all around me. However, for some reason, the one thing I have not been able to conquer is my fear of going to the dentist.

I would rather face down a gang of killer vampire bikers, armed with ten foot double edged razor sharp swords than to square off with a 104 pound 5’3” inch dentist holding a drill.

In the 70’s I put a very well know Beverly Hills dentist in a wrist lock when he hurt me. He remained on his knees until his assistant turned off the drill. We came to an agreement, the dentist wouldn’t call the cops if I promised to let him up, leave and never return.

Then during the late 80’s, I was hosting PM Magazine in San Diego, when a tooth went bad and my boss forced me to go to the dentist because I looked like a chipmunk on the air. Three of the station’s biggest employees forced me into the PM Magazine van and drove me to a local dentist. Once inside his office, I locked myself in the guys bathroom. They had to take the door off it’s hinges to get at me. Then, I had to be tranquilize before they could get me in his chair. It was like a scene from Wild Kingdom, where the hunters had to shoot a dart filled with goofy juice into the butt of an angry tiger so the vet could work on him, except it was my butt and the vet was a dentist.

Even for a simple cleaning I had to be put out. That’s how bad I am. Sure, I’ve tried mustering up the same martial arts chi that has served me so well in both my personal and my professional life, but all that training just flies out the window when there’s a dentist involved.

In the 90’s I was hosting a TV show called Karoke Krazy in Dallas when my tooth went south on me. This time I was ushered to the offices of , (and I am not making this up) Doctor’s William Hurt and Dennis Payne. Just what I needed. Scared to death of the dentist and I am in the chair of Hurt and Payne. Once again I had to be completely knocked out before they could even get me into the car to drive me to the office.

I was hoping that would be the end of my trips to the dentist. But fate had other plans for me.

I was in a bad accident; a semi truck smashed into a Shell Mini Mart where I was shopping and knocked me into a glass cooler. In the process I busted several teeth. Pined against the glass I watched as the out of control, unmanned 18 wheeler came right at me, and all I could say was “Oh dear God, if I live thought this, I’m going to have to go to the dentist”.

Obviously I survived the ordeal, with some not-so-minor injuries. I didn’t care about the orthoscopic on my shoulder, or the months of therapy I had to endure to get all my parts working again. I didn’t even mind the short term memory loss I had from smacking my head against a wall of glass. Those things were but a mere annoyance compared to my tips to the dentist.

A lot of dentists just don’t want to deal with me, and I don’t blame them. Prior to becoming a patient I give them fair warning about my “Jeckel & Hyde” personality when it comes to their profession. However, one brave soul did take on the challenge. Michael Olmstead is one of the nations leading practitioners of bio-compatible dental care, he is also a martial artist.

Sharing that common ground we attempted to go where no sane person would dare to go, my mouth.

“I don’t care how tough a person is, going to the dentist can be a very scary experience,” says Dr. Olmstead. “You’re laying back in a chair, completely defenseless, with your mouth open, which is a very sensitive area, and, especially if you’ve had a bad experience, it’s not an easy thing to do. As a dentist I must honor the fact that the patient is in a vulnerable situation and help them to understand that I am here to help them, not hurt them”.

I began to tremble as I approached his chair. Little beads of sweat trickled down my forehead, my leg began to do “The Elvis move” twitching to the tune of “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Sensing that I was a nervous as a cat at a Pit Bull convention, Dr. Olmstead plied some martial arts philosophy to calm my nerves as I attempted to sit in “The Chair”.

“A martial artist should be able to call upon his mental discipline to overcome his or her fear of going to the dentist,” said Olmstead”. “If you can stand in a horse stance for hours, doing drill-after-drill, or take a hard punch to the stomach, then you can handle a trip to the dentist. Any martial artist who has been in the arts for a while has heart. They should be able to use their mind to control their anxieties and use their heart to express themselves.”

“Yea right,” I muttered while forming my hand into a knife-hand position.

Doctor Olmstead quickly realized that I was the exception to the rule when, during the examination my legs shot out of the chair so straight and hard that my shoes flew off and landed against his wall several feet away.

“Okay,” he said. “That’s a way to express yourself,” he chuckled. “The other part of using your chi or ki is to trust the dentist the same way you would a senior instructor. If they tell you to hold still and not to move while they demonstrate a technique or break a board, you have enough confidence in their skill to know that they won’t hurt you. The same applies here. You must trust the person who is working on your teeth with the same confidence that you have in your black belt instructors.”

Now I know he is correct, and what he says will work, in fact it’s the same philosophy I pass on to my students. But for some reason, all I could visualize at that moment was a scene I witnessed at a demonstration years prior. A high ranking black belt asked for a volunteer from the audience to hold an apple for him to slice and dice during a sword demonstration. Well, the black belt blindfolded himself and took a swing with his razor sharp sword. Moments later we were picking fingers up off the floor and tying a tourniquet onto the arm of the “trusting” student. So much for trust.

After relating that story to Dr. Olmstead he tried another approach to clam my now twitching body.

“Well, nobody should give themselves mindlessly to a situation,” said the martial arts dentist. “No matter how good you are, you don’t walk into a dark alley and put yourself at risk, nor should someone volunteer to act as a dummy for an instructor that they don’t know personally. Not all black belts should be giving demonstrations. It comes back to you taking control of the situation. Or, you can look at it as another challenge to overcome. So Terry, here is your opportunity to use your martial arts to over come your fear of the dentist the same way you have over come other obstacles with your jujitsu and karate training”.

The examination finished safely, no one got hurt and we departed friends. However my next several trips will be the true test. The “D” (drill) word will be involved, and I will be facing my greatest fear without the aid of happy gas. If I get though this ordeal, I feel that I shall have finally earned that next stripe on my black belt.

The accident also did some jaw damage; so Doctor Olmstead sent me to a TMJ specialist. I was pleased to learn that he to was a martial artist. Another black belt dentist, man-o-man, are the gods of Zen trying to send me a message or what I thought to my self.

The TMJ guy, Doctor Gerald McCracken, a 3rd degree black belt in Kempo Karate proved to me a painless experience. Oh sure, it hurt when I had to open my jaw to get fitted for a brace, but pain like that I can deal with. There was no drills or sharp little probing things scraping against my dented dental work.

However, some of the things I learned about TMJ injuries and how to prevent and deal with those kinds of problems are important to know about, especially if you are involved in contact sports like the martial arts.

The jaw is not only one of the most sought after targets in a fight, it’s also one of the most vulnerable bones in the human body. Even with protective gear, a blow or kick to the jaw can easily cause serious damage.

“The most common injuries related to the jaw is one of two things, “ says Dr. McCracken. “A direct impact, like a straight right, or getting hit from the side. Although the lower jaw sits in a joint on either side in front of our ear, it is one piece. So, a blow to one side of the mouth can cause injury to either side of the jaw joint or TMJ.”

If you want to locate this delicate area, put your finger in front of either ear then wiggle the jaw. You will feel a little bone called the condyle moving around in there. The condyle will translate out to the edge of the socket in a forward position. This is a normal position for yawning or taking a big bite out of something like a pizza or a submarine sandwich. The condyle is restrained at that point by a series of ligaments and tendons.

When the jaw is struck from the side it can hyperextend the jaw which jams the condyle into the tissue on the opposite side. This causes a joint sprain which can in extreme cases cause your jaw to lock in an open position.

Dr. McCracken says that when an injury does occur, the best treatment is to get ice on it as soon as possible.

“What you don’t want to do is use heat”, says Dr. McCracken. “Keep icing the injury for about a week. And don’t open your mouth wide after you’ve been hit. If you need to yawn, tuck your chin into your neck or put your fist under your chin to restrict the movement of the chin. Just try to keep from opening your jaw wide. You want to keep your jaw closed, and if it continues to hurt, you might consider restricting yourself to a soft food diet for about a week”.

Should you find your self missing a tooth, Dr. McCracken says to put it in liquid right away. Milk is the liquid of choice to keep the tooth “alive” while transporting both victim and tooth to the dentist.

“If you get to the dentist quickly, they can usually root canal the tooth while it’s out and wire it to adjacent teeth which will hold it back in place and often times that will save the tooth, says Dr. McCracken”.

Over the years Dr. McCracken has treated numerous martial arts related injuries.

“Most of the injuries I have treated have been people who have been working out without a mouthpiece,” recalls Dr. McCracken. “You have all the way from direct dental injuries like lost teeth, cracked teeth, chipped teeth, fractures and cut lips to actual joint dislocation and fractures.”

In an effort to help prevent such injuries Dr. McCracken developed his own style of mouth piece. His design came about when the San Diego Clippers, (prior to their move to Los Angles) asked Dr. McCracken to create a more effective mouth piece for the players.

“I came up with this design that does a couple of things,” says Dr. McCracken. “First of all it provides the protection needed from direct impact to the jaw. By making an impression of the upper teeth it stayed in by suction. This allowed the players to open their mouth and breath and talk while on the court without impairing their endurance. This mouth piece is much better than the boil and bite variety because it won’t fall out, plus many of the boil and bite mouth guards are made of hard plastic and when hit they can cut your lip. The material I use is a very soft rubbery type of plastic which is comfortable and won’t cut the lip if struck. I’ve had my mouthpiece for 12 years now and it works just as good now as it did when I first made it. So these things will last a long time.”

This 30 year martial arts veteran and world renown dentist states that many of these injures can be prevented with the use of a good mouth piece.

“If you train in the martial arts or any type of contact sport and don’t wear a mouth piece, you are just asking for an injury”, says Dr. McCracken.