Do you dread going to see the dentist? It seems like almost everyone has a horror story starring their very own teeth, but rest assured that medical innovation has not overlooked oral healthcare.
Dentistry encompasses the mouth (oral cavity) which, of course, holds our teeth in place so we can eat and talk. Due to genetics, diet, injury, or age, the teeth and gums can become diseased like any other part of the body. Technically, gum health is the specialty practiced by periodontists.
Dental science has come a long way since 7000 B.C. in the Indus Valley (modern-day Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Iran), when woodworking bow drills were used to remove tooth rot. Ouch.
The ancient Egyptians, Mayans, and Aztecs all made false teeth – the original dental implants – from small smoothed rocks and carved shells. Fillings were made of beeswax until 700 AD when metal came into vogue in the Tang Dynasty.
In those days, tooth decay was thought to be caused by “dental worms.” It wasn’t until the 14th century that a French physician named Guy de Chauliac advanced the theory that acids from sugar cause cavities.
Have you ever wondered why your dentist advises you to brush your teeth and floss at least once a day? Brushing and flossing physically remove plaque, “a sticky film of bacteria” that covers the teeth. Food particles that accumulate on teeth and in braces will, over time, turn into plaque.
If you don’t gently scrub and scrape the plaque away on a regular basis, it can harden into tartar, also called calculus (no relation to the mathematics, thank goodness). Built-up calculus irritates and inflames the gum tissue. Left untreated, you might develop gingivitis, the earliest stage of gum (periodontal) disease.
In addition, bacteria from built-up plaque can cause gum disease, and tooth decay, to the point where you are losing your teeth.
There are plenty of warning signs that it’s time to schedule a dental check-up (exam) and cleaning, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research:
• Bad breath that won’t go away
• Red or swollen gums
• Tender or bleeding gums
• Painful chewing
• Loose teeth
• Sensitive teeth
• Receding gums or longer appearing teeth
An infected tooth may become abscessed at its base or root. Double ouch. This condition, too, has symptoms you definitely want to heed:
• Pain when chewing
• Bitter taste in the mouth
• Extremely bad breath
• Swollen neck glands
• Red, swollen gums
• Open, draining sores on the gums
• Swollen jaw
If you remember from the song, “the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone” and so on up the human skeleton. In the same way, your blood carries harmful bacteria from mouth infections to other parts of your body which may result in serious medical complications, including:
• Brain abscess from blood-borne infection
• Sinus infection
• Bacterial endocarditis (heart infection)
• Ludwig’s angina (face and jaw infection)
Robert Ghalili, DMD, a New York City periodontist said, “The body is never really resting when you have a mouth infection.”
A dentist told me the same thing once. He stressed the importance of resolving tooth and gum pain sooner rather than later. The worst thing to do is wait until you have a toothache so severe that your head pounds in pain, you can’t sleep, work or play, and have to book an emergency appointment – on a holiday weekend, naturally.
As with all branches of medicine, dental treatment may be reactive (after the fact) for illness or injury or proactive, called preventative care.
The best prevention for oral problems is good old-fashioned brushing and flossing. Incorporate this simple self-care routine in your lifestyle and it’s possible that you will never lose any teeth, have very few cavities, and enjoy excellent gum health throughout your entire lifetime.
So the next time you feel like falling into bed without visiting your toothbrush first, consider the consequences: face the anesthetic and dentist’s drill, possibly replace lost teeth with an implant, bridge or dentures – or perhaps even develop a raging bacteriological infection that can spread to other parts of your body.
Avoid the nightmarish reality and enjoy sweet dreams instead.