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Root canal and music

About ten years ago, every time I’d go to the dentist, I’d end up fainting or close to it. The fear and stress built over the years and it came to a point where I just couldn’t stand it: even the thought of going made me break into sweat. The problem was, I needed a lot of dental work, and still do, probably due to the fact that I could not drink milk when I was a baby.

Then I discovered a book that pretty much changed my dental life: The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit.

The Mozart Effect was one of the first widely read books about Music Therapy, a form of “treatment” with great claims: using music can cure cancers or help kids to learn better, among other things. While I can’t attest to any of those claims, the American Music Therapy Association was founded in 1998, schools have grown across the States and Europe (where it originally started) to form music therapists, and music therapy is used in nursing homes, schools, hospitals, even with psychiatric patients.

What changed my life are the very short few paragraphs in The Mozart Effect about using music to counteract pain, especially pain from a surgical operation or dental work.

Part of the stress in a procedure is the noise. Think of nails screeching on a blackboard. The sound of the drill (the big knubbly one, that makes your entire body shake, or the high-pitched one, that brings a scent of burnt enamel with it) in your head. The surgeon’s words, the suction sounds, the… (shudder). You get my drift.

The principle of music therapy as applied to surgical and dental procedures is to counteract this noise by filling your head with music instead of harmful noises. The theory is that your head is a resonance box and that the bones of your head also conduct noise, especially the bones in your ears. Music competes with other noises and acts as a form of white noise.

There are a couple of requirements in listening to music for that purpose: the music should be without words or with unrecognizable words, and preferably classical or special music therapy music (think spa music). The first is because words hold emotional connotations and what you want to do in part is remove that emotional field. A specific song might evoke sadness, wistfulness, or specific memories which would interfere with the white noise effect or intensify your stress. The second is because you need music that has a lot of vibrato, such as cords, that will resonate in the bones of your head. I found Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Gregorian Chant, or meditation music ideal for that.

Does it work? You bet. Everyone who’s used it that I know now swears by it. My dentist is always happy when I plug myself in. The latest specialist I went to for a root canal (upper front tooth) was quite amenable to me listening to my own music. It’s become more and more acceptable, and last year I used my music during a surgical procedure with the surgeon’s encouragement.

There were several immediate benefits for me when I began to use music at the dentist. First, I can start listening to my music as soon as I leave the house, and find a zone of calm that helps with the overall stress. Second, I feel less during the procedure, in part because I can focus on something else but also because I do hear less of the noise. And third, the pain after everything thaws out is minimal. Gone are the days where I needed drugs for several days to counteract the pain. Because I’m much more relaxed, I can absorb whatever pain a lot more easily. Overall, that means a much shorter recovery and healing time.

And you know what? It sure beats the Muzak-type drivel I would have to listen to in the dentist’s chair. So in this case, it’s no pain, and all gain. I’ll take that any day, even if it’s all in my head (well, duh).

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