"Beware the evil tooth worm, who has rooted itself in the in the deep, dark cavities of your being. This bone-chilling, bloodcurdling monster is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, yet its presence will create considerable damage and cause you great pain. Once it gets under your gums, your teeth will never be the same again!"
Luckily, it's not related to the tapeworm. In fact, tooth worms doesn't exist at all. An urban legend of its time, "evil" tooth worms date back as far as 5000 BC, long before modern dentists were trained to diagnose and treat tooth pain.
The Mythology of the Tooth Worm
Before anyone understood the reasons behind tooth decay, tooth worms were considered to be the cause. In ancient times, there was no scientific explanation for tooth ailments or the unsightly appearance that tooth decay left in its wake. Nor were there dental offices, dental schools or the standard oral hygiene practices that we have today. So without any way to rationalize how these "holes" were created in teeth, the legend of the tooth worm was born!
Many believed that the tooth worm bore a hole through your tooth, stubbornly hiding beneath the surface. It caused a toothache by wriggling around, and the pain subsided once the worm rested. Although no one could tell you exactly what the creature looked like, it had taken on many forms over the years. British folklore had the tooth worm resembling an eel. Germans believed the maggot-like worm was red, blue and gray in color. But much like the modern legends of the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, there is no real proof that tooth worms ever existed.
The tooth worm has an incredibly long history, and wasn't ruled out as the cause of tooth pain until approximately the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, doctors replaced superstition with scientific theory, and the Western world gradually substituted the idea of a tooth worm with dental caries. But the change didn't happen overnight -- it was still considered by some cultures to be the cause of tooth pain well into the 1900s!
Baiting the Tooth Worm
Dental treatment for the tooth worm varied depending on the culture and era it resided in. In ancient times, doctors believed the tooth's nerve was the tooth worm! Once the dental crown was removed, the worm-like nerve was pulled out. Surprisingly, it may have relieved some of the patients' pain, considering a toothache will usually come into play when the nerve is affected by tooth decay.
Throughout the centuries, different toothache remedies were used to cure those plagued by the tooth worm. Other ancient practices included rituals and chanting spells to expel the tooth worm. In some cultures, a heated probe was used to kill tooth worms. Medieval through modern times also saw the use of magic and sorcery: Poisonous henbane seeds were burned in order to fumigate the demon-like tooth worm from the body. Those not prone to witchcraft used honey to lure the worm to the surface of the tooth, hoping to see it and pull it out. When all else failed, a tooth extraction was necessary.
Regardless of where or when the tooth worm struck, herbal remedies were often used to treat the pain. Now we can't tell you whether any of these treatments worked, but you can imagine that very few of these procedures were actually pleasant!
We’ve Come a Long Way
Luckily, we live in an age where science has given us reasonable explanations for our ailments. We now know it is dental plaque bacteria, not worms, that eat away at our tooth enamel and cause tooth decay. And dental treatments have improved, too! Thanks to modern dentistry, dental cavities and other dental problems can be easily diagnosed and treated with little or no discomfort.