Did You Know Tooth Worms Used to Be the Most Common Cause of Cavities?

Words Actually

Worm in mouthImage created and licensed from Canva Pro

For most of history people believe that a monstrous tooth worm caused cavities and other dental maladies. According to one source, the legend goes back to ancient times. A story recorded on a Babylon tablet, entitled The Legend of the Wormrecounts the creature’s origin. Long story short, an angry worm didn’t want what a particular god was offering. So it rebelled and said instead of sucking on apricots and chewing figs, he and his kind would live in our gums and suck the blood from our teeth.

This story seems to have spread as we know that images of the tooth worm were featured in medieval pictures. Now the Medieval doctors didn’t always have the greatest handle on medicine or understanding of the human body. This was a time when people still did weird things to random body parts in hopes of maybe making someone better.

Here we can see a successful operation in which the doctor gets all that worm out of a mouth, including the teeth with it of course.

Man pulls worm out of another's mouth in medieval artImage public domain altered by author

Here’s another look at a depiction of the creature and its friends from an Ottoman document made in the 1700s. Look at the good time those tooth worms and demons are having in there, as they cause the human excruciating pain.

Old image of tooth worms imagined as demonsImage public domain altered by author

In some cultures, these worms might actually be considered “demons” or something along those lines. One would have to cleanse their teeth to try and exorcise the beasts. This could be by swishing a brew meant to destroy it. And knowing what we know now, heat and certain substances like salt are good for alleviating tooth pain. However when infection sets in too deep people would extract the tooth, and also the worm.

Why worms though? What could have made this belief so prevalent? Well, a couple of things

Have you ever actually looked at an extracted tooth when it needs to be pulled? It looks like it’s been chewed up. The root itself can have a soft, hanging worm shape. Then there are the holes. Our ancestors didn’t understand what caused teeth to die, or the pain. But they did have their eyes. And what they saw with those eyes were holes. Holes that got deeper as the tooth decay worsened.

The only animal small enough to fit inside one’s mouth might be a bug. And worms that existed in their world did leave holes in the ground. Perfectly round holes as they trailed paths. Leaves chewed upon by creatures like caterpillars (which let’s be honest are nothing but fancy worms) were reminiscent of those jagged edges rotting teeth sometimes get.

So they jumped to their best conclusion. By being able to name their monster, they were able to fight it and the pain it caused. The myth of the tooth worm in our mouths became so prevalent that doctors and dentists had to fight to have people believe that it was dental plaque, not small creatures, that caused so much pain and discomfort.

Though considering how early dentists treated their patients…

Old school dentistryImage public domain altered by author

I’m not surprised that no one wanted to listen to them.

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