Have you ever had a new filling or crown placed that felt kind of foreign? It was smooth as silk, it wasn’t pointy and the bite felt just right. But yet, it was different. Your tongue acted like it would never get used to it, constantly running circles around the newness of it.
Do you remember what happened to it? Yup. You forgot about it. A day or two later, it didn’t feel new. How does that work? I mean, two days ago you were pretty sure that you were going to need to call the dentist. There had to be something wrong with this weird new filling. But now you’re not even sure what tooth it is. How bizarre is that?
It’s actually not bizarre at all! In fact, it means your nervous system is working just perfectly.
Neural adaptation or sensory adaptation is a change over time in the responsiveness of the sensory system to a constant stimulus. That’s a very fancy way of saying, “you just get used to it.” Our nervous system is constantly taking in all kinds of sensory data. What we hear, what we see, what we smell, taste and feel are all giving constant input to our brain. The thing is, not all of this information is all that important at any given time. So the brain has to be able to filter out the stuff that isn’t important while keeping track of the sensory information that is.
Once the brain and nervous system has figured out which information isn’t important at the moment, or salient, it can filter this information out. That way the brain can focus on more important sensory input.
My favorite example of this adaptation has to do with swimming in the lake. Each 4th of July weekend for as long as I can remember my cousins and I spend as much time as we can in the lake. Even in early July, when the temperature is in the mid-80’s that lake always feels really cold. At first. If you creep into the lake slowly, just a couple steps at a time, it stays excruciatingly cold. But the longer you’re in, and the more of your body gets wet, the less cold the water feels. Pretty soon, we’re splashing around in the water like it was a bathtub. What happened? Did the water change temperature? Probably not. We just got used to the temperature.
There are probably great survival reasons for our brain to be wary of the shocking cold we feel when we make our way into the lake. We have to maintain our temperature between certain parameters and if our brain feels like this is threatened, it’s going to continue to sound the alarm. After you spend a little time in the water and your survival doesn’t seem threatened, the temperature stops being such a salient stimulus. Your brain begins to focus on other things, like the squishy bottom of the lake or your cousin attempting to dunk you.
So, back to that new crown or filling. It feels new and weird for a little while because it’s a constant and different stimulus to what your brain had been used to up to that point. The longer it stays there without causing a big problem, the more your nervous system discounts the stimuli coming from the touch receptors in your lip, cheek and tongue. Over time, the new filling begins to feel like the norm. Most of the time my patients have gotten very comfortable with their provisional (temporary) crowns and will have to go through the same process with their new crown.
So the next time you have some dental work done and your tongue keeps telling you that there’s something funny going on, just remember that it’s just like jumping into the lake. After a little while, you’ll get used to it!
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If you’re looking for a dentist in Saginaw, we’re always happy to accept new patients! You can request an appointment online or call the office at (989) 799-9133. And, as always, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I always answer my own emails!