Is it safe?

If not performed by properly trained professionals, dental modifications can be risky. Undergoing a dental modification can lead to great pain, infection, and even death in the most extreme circumstances, but fortunately these severe collateral consequences are much rarer in the 21st century. 

 Whether the person performing the operation is a licensed dentist or a skilled tribesman, they must continually exercise extreme precision and possess a profound knowledge of anatomy. If a modification is not conducted by an astute practitioner with the proper tools or the area is not properly tended to during recovery, the patient is at risk of receiving lasting damage. However, as long as the procedure is undertaken by a professional with clean and precise tools and care is taken to properly tend to the site of the procedure, the odds of negative consequences from the operation is today very low.

Those performing the operations in the past, who were oftentimes not doctors or experts, but blacksmiths or other tradesman, had to be patient and have great knowledge of bone structure, due to the risk of piercing the pulp inside the tooth, which would often lead to tooth or alveolar bone loss. These operations took hours because of the tools at disposal, such as the obsidian blades used by the Maya, which dulled rapidly and had to be replaced frequently.

Studies suggest that pain to the pulp chamber increases with age, and because of the high concentration of nerves in the area, operations of the sort could have reached a 9 or 10 on the pain scale when the use of possible local anaesthetics are not taken into consideration. This equates to the pain that would be felt when having one’s hand crushed and is unbearable for most people, frequently leading to loss of consciousness and sometimes death. Despite these great risks, the practice has continued and even flourished, indicating that the cultural benefit gained from these operations is well worth the individual risk to the patient.

Fortunately, with the advent of new technologies, anesthesias, and procedures, dental modifications have become less risky and for the most part, less painful. However, there are still some minor associated risks and damages that are associated with undertaking a dental modification today.


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The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry is an auxiliary enterprise of the University of Maryland, School of Dentistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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