*Warning* This blog contains graphic medical descriptions! But it’s eventually about archaeology, so stick with me people…
Not being to open your mouth is not fun, being in pain is not fun, and not being able to eat is NOT FUN.
Just before New Year’s, I started getting intolerable jaw ache, a temperature and signs of really lovely, wonderfully comfortable and pleasant infection in my mouth. The worst thing was that I knew exactly what the underlying problem was – I had just been ignoring it for over five years. As we all do!
I have an impacted wisdom tooth. The offending item hasn’t even bothered to launch itself in the right direction of my gums, but instead just sits lazily in the left corner of my lower mandible. Five years ago, this triggered a reaction that started the growth of a small cyst and infection. So, I was sent home with a course of antibiotics and a referral to a maxillofacial surgeon to rectify the problem. The antibiotics worked and the appointment never came, and to be honest I forgot about it. My mouth stopped hurting ergo I stopped caring.
Fast-forward to January 3, 2013, and again I am at the dentist with a prescription for antibiotics and another letter being sent out to a new ‘max facs’ surgeon. This time however, I am in excruciating pain, my face has blown up on one side and my ability to open my mouth is now so restricted I can only open it to 1cm in total. One week later I am told by my dentist that I have to go to A and E, and I find myself spending a whole day in hospital being shunted to different departments, having my mouth prised open by an oral surgeon with lolly-pop sticks (not fun either) where finally I am placed in the care of a maxillofacial consultant. After a swift admittance into A and E, a CT scan and several tests later the results are back.
I have a serious infection, and I still have a cyst that has now grown to mammoth proportions – but now, I have half the jaw I used to. Apparently I have something called an odontogenic keratocyst, which is an aggressive cyst, which has a tendency to invade the bone. It’s quite literally eaten my bone, which is now apparently it’s so thin the consultants are shocked that my jaw has not fractured either whilst eating or digging. Cue two bouts of surgery, one down – and one to go.
Ultimately, most things in life spark an archaeological response in me. My sorry predicament made me think about all the other poor saps before me. How on earth did people survive with this hideous illness (answer: most didn’t)? How did they cope with the pain and did people die from it? I’ve excavated an endless amount of human remains, and remember with fresh clarity mandibles showing signs of cysts and abscesses by the lack of bone in places where there clearly should be more. It’s ow weird for me to think that someday, if archaeologist of the future digs me up, they might say the same thing about my jawbone.
And so, my gory Google search begins. I am in illustrious company with Tutankhamun and Amonhotep III, both of whom suffered from dental abscesses. In fact, my jaw involuntarily twinges just by looking at a picture Amenhotep’s skull – apparently he was still suffering with them at the time of his death, which is pretty apparent from his lack of front teeth and jaw! After a wide sweeping search it’s safe to say that there is a lot of information out there of skeletons showing signs of having dental abscesses or cysts. That’s not say that they all had the same problem as me – abscesses can also arise from cumulative decay as a result of poor oral hygiene or trauma.
Dental treatment and awareness isn’t as young a profession as we all think. Research into Indus Valley civilisations in Pakistan have uncovered evidence of the practice of dentistry dating back to 7000BC, and in ancient Egypt swollen gums were treated with fig juice, cedar oil, cumin, onion and incense, with opium being administered for pain relief (are you listening NHS? Enough with the paracetomol!).
So, what about the treatment of cysts and abscesses? After a thorough look at sources, only one option is viable: surgery. Drill marks have been repeatedly found on the mandibles of human remains, across many cultures and time periods. It seems that drilling to drain abscesses and infections is an effective and swift course of treatment. Everything has its limitations, however, drilling is only effective if treated early on. Dental infection is a serious condition and even people today can die from lack of treatment – it can lead to heart attacks, strokes, severe bone infections (osteomylitis) and infection of the brain.
Needless to say my consultant has given me a right royal telling off (deservedly so) and that I am now in the capable hands of a world class surgeon, (yes on the NHS!). I have spent the past few months NOT digging, NOT exercising, missing parties, and eating baby food helpfully bought for me by Lisa Westcott Wilkins (she thinks she’s funny!). I’m ready for this to be over!
So don’t forget to see the doctor or the dentist, and remember how lucky we are that we live in the age of modern medicine – hmmm now where is that cumin and incense?
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