Korean Dentistry

Korean dentists have a reputation among foreigners, and it's not exactly comforting. That's the Waygook forum, a place for ESL teachers in Korea, and the thread on dentistry reads like a horror story. It's full of drill-happy lunatics, a disturbing lack of anesthesia, and lots of eager men with pliers. Living here and reading that gave me religion on the subject of oral hygiene. But of course, as all things go, I got a toothache anyway. And I wasn't dropping two grand on a flight to the States to deal with it. So here are a few on-the-ground experiences.


1) They really don't use anesthesia (mostly).

I had two cavities and a cracked tooth. The latter was bad enough to require a root canal. The dentist dealt with this cornucopia of drilling festivities over the course of seven appointments, each lasting about thirty minutes. The first four covered the root canal. The last three, my cavities.

The only time the dentist used any kind of anesthesia was when he had to remove the damaged nerve from my cracked tooth. For that lovely occasion, he gave me a shot to numb my jaw. All other drilling, grinding, sanding, and filling was done without painkillers.

To be fair, drilling cavities without anesthesia was not nearly as bad as I expected. But getting a root canal is pretty involved. The dentist has to grind down the old tooth until it's small enough to fit under a crown. That takes work. And my dentist spread that out over three separate sessions. No, it wasn't painful after that first time where he killed the nerve, but that doesn't mean it was fun. (Hyperbole and a Half has a humorous summary of the process of getting crown - just imagine it without all the numbness)


2) I was blind the whole time.

Last time I was in a dentist's office in the States, they actually had a TV mounted special on the ceiling, so I could watch CSI while I got my teeth checked. It was wonderfully distracting.

Dentists in Korea have a different approach. Here, they take a really big green drape, cut a mouth-sized hole in the middle, and then throw that over your head to make the crappiest Halloween ghost costume ever. It's like having teeth drilled in a sensory deprivation tank.

Honestly, the experience was a little chilling. Each appointment started the same way. I'd sit down in the chair. One assistant tilted me back and got some water ready for spitting. The other tossed a thick cloth over my face and lined up the narrow hole with my mouth. Then I lay there blind for a bit, until the dentist announced his presence by test firing his drill a foot from my left ear.

I'm not sure why they do it this way. Maybe it's so they don't have to see your face when they drill without anesthesia.


3) My experience sounds terrifying, but it was largely positive.

I have two brand new fillings and a shiny crown. I briefly thought about getting gold (it'd give me some authenticity on the next Talk Like A Pirate Day) but it was too expensive. The insurance from EPIK gave us coverage for the appointments and amalgum fillings, but the crowns were up to us. Gold ain't exactly cheap. I got a boring normal ceramic instead.

The two biggest rumors about Korean dentistry that I'd heard over and over were A) the dentist will see "X" cavities, where "X" is a larger number than you'd think possible. Eight. Ten. Fourteen. Pick whichever is most shocking. And B), the dentist will not tell you what treatment he thinks is necessary; he'll just do it. He finds a cavity during a routine cleaning? No consultation... just straight to drill-and-fill. He sees a tooth that looks rotten? No consultation... here come the pliers.

But that was not my experience. We asked for a recommendation from a Korean friend we trust. She pointed us to the dentist she uses for her family. The man was friendly and very professional (although he DID insist that drilling the cavities wouldn't hurt - bastard lied about THAT one). He never did any treatment without telling me why. He even took pictures of my cavities and projected them on a screen for me before any drilling started... this was all before they covered my face with a sheet, of course.

I wouldn't recommend Korean dentistry, but my experience wasn't the Saw movie I expected. And hey, by the last appointment, I actually found the drape comforting in a way. Like napping... while being prodded with dental instruments.

So... not very restful. But definitely an experience.