Why You Don't Feel Pain at The Dentist: History of Numbing
You know when you go to the dentist and they give you a gel or a shot, and suddenly, you can’t feel your mouth anymore? What they’ve just done is given you something to numb any pain. It’s also called an anesthetic. This word was created by the dad of the creator of Sherlock Holmes and means “without sensation”. Numbing has been with humans for a long time. Old writings from Egypt, Greece, China and Mesopotamia tell us that even they used things to help make pain go away.
Before we talk about the history, let’s go over how numbing works. In your body, there are millions of little nerve cells. When you touch or feel something, the nerves send signals all the way up to your brain. Once the signals get there, your brain then lets you know that what you’re touching is hard or soft, hot or cold. Nerves also alert you to painful things, like when you scrape your knee. When you’re given something that numbs you, the nerves can no longer send these signals, meaning you can’t feel anything. Even if what you have your hand on is super cold, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
Because we feel pain, it makes sense that humans would work to find something to stop it. After all, pain never feels good. In the beginning, what was used to numb didn’t actually numb. What it did was make the pain less intense. Plants like poppies and mandrakes were very popular. During the Middle Ages, a potion known as dwale was very popular. When breathed in, it would have a numbing effect on the body. Another popular choice was a sponge soaked in many different plant juices. The vapors were also breathed in.
It wasn’t until the 1700s that big advancements were being made. During what is now known as the Scientific Revolution, many scientists were hard at work discovering different types of chemicals and gasses that would eventually be brought together to form the numbing agents we use today. In 1775, Joseph Priestley published a book about different kinds of gases that he had studied. This finally led to the discovery of laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, by Humphrey Davy. If you’ve ever had to breathe it in, you’ll definitely know why it’s called “laughing” gas.
Over in Japan at about the same time, Hanaoka Seishu was hard at work trying to piece together a lost bit of Chinese history. According to the Chinese records, Hua Tuo, a famous surgeon that lived around 200 AD, had invented a numbing powder made with plants like ginseng, wolfsbane and morning glory. Unfortunately, the recipe was lost because he burned all of his notes right before his death. Seishu ended up being very lucky and managed to create one very similar. He first used it during an operation in 1805 and went on to use it 150 more times before his death.
Morphine, a very famous anesthetic, was found in poppy seeds, explaining why for thousands of years the plant was used to lessen pain. Western science continued working hard discovering and testing out new chemicals, but it wasn’t until the 1900s that things really began to look similar to today. By 1900, there were numbing chemicals that could be given with a shot, by being rubbed on the skin, or breathed in. Chemicals like morphine were in use but even weirder names started to be invented. Droperidol, alfentanil and etomidate were all great at numbing but incredibly hard to pronounce. Novocaine was invented by a German chemist in 1905 and was one of the precursors lidocaine (invented by the Swedish chemist Nils Lofgren in 1943), the most common local anesthetic in the world today.
Being able to numb your mouth has taken thousands of years to get to you today. Without the hard work of all those scientist and researchers, we wouldn’t be able to put on a silly mask and immediately feel like laughing.