Many people believe that since they aren’t experiencing dental symptoms – like tooth pain or bleeding gums – then all must be well.
Unfortunately, a sizable number of dental problems, including cavities and periodontal disease (bone loss around your teeth), just don’t produce obvious symptoms in their early stages. At least not symptoms that tend to be obvious to patients.
In fact, by the time people the average person experiences pain, his dental issue is typically pretty far along. And all too often, by then, the problem can also be quite expensive to handle.
It might amaze you to discover the types of problems your average dentist encounters every week, many of which you would expect to be painful, but they just aren’t. They can still result in tooth loss though.
Pretty much anyone who has ever worked in a dental office for any length of time will tell you this is so. And they will tell you that you can inform some people that they have a problem, but unless it is “real” to them, they just won’t do anything about it.
They may come back a few years later (or maybe sooner) – usually with an emergency – desperately wanting to save the tooth that you told them about earlier. Of course, by now, it may be too late. And very often they will have forgotten it was ever discussed at all, because it was never a realistic problem for them to begin with.
Human nature can be funny that way.
So, keeping that in mind, it’s generally a good idea to get checked out by a dentist. Regularly.
The best news you can hear is that everything looks great.
But sometimes getting a confirmation that you don’t have cavities or gum disease is not the only reason to get a dental exam. Over the years, I have detected cancer (not just oral cancer) – as well as a host of other non-dental problems – that might have been overlooked had the patient not scheduled an exam. Obviously, we refer patients to an appropriate specialist for treatment when we discover medical problems outside the scope of dental practice.
Other benefits of getting a dental exam: I can recall many patients who told me that what they thought were unrelated health problems simply resolved when their oral problems were gotten under control. These have included digestive problems, low energy problems, elevated blood cell counts, hypertension, and more.
Over the years, some people have told me they don’t want to get a dental exam because they don’t want to discover they have any problems. I guess that works.
Just maybe not too well.
Your overall health is connected to your oral health. Take a look at this infographic. Then think it over. . . .
So it’s always gratifying when a patient can leave my office joking and smiling after the experience, such as happened in my office two days ago.
In fact, another patient, actually gave me a big hug after her extraction the following day.
And that got me to thinking about this entire area. . . .
No one (usually*) wants to lose teeth. And we, as dentists, don’t want people to lose them either, but sometimes there is little choice if a tooth has been allowed to get bad enough, or if periodontal disease is so advanced that there is no hope of reversal. [*Though, I did have a young boy actually request a tooth extraction last week — but I’m pretty sure he was really hoping for a visit from the tooth fairy. ]
Nevertheless, I see many people really work themselves up over the thought of the procedure. In fact, the first patient I mentioned actually rescheduled her original appointment when she learned she needed the extraction. She had a hard time confronting the idea of removing her tooth.
Trust me. I get it.
But, to her credit, she did show up for her appointment and when we were done – as I have heard so many times before – she said: “I can’t believe I worked myself up for that.”
Even with her tooth being so badly decayed that there was barely anything to get a hold of, her experience was pretty quick and painless.
So her worry was just stress on top of stress.
My first piece of advice on this point is try not to need an extraction. Toward that end, try to keep up with regular dental visits, eat a healthy diet, and don’t forget — you control your home care. But, if you do need to have a tooth removed, talk to your doctor about your concerns.
In most cases, your anticipation of what is to come will be far worse than the experience. Still, delaying the inevitable is seldom a good thing. It can make it harder for the doctor too. So why not just make it easier on everybody?
Common sense. Does it seem to you that this has become a rare commodity nowadays? Possibly, then, it is really uncommon sense that we should be talking about.
The latest example of an affront to logic – at least for me – lies in the latest media challenge to oral health. This morning various news agencies including The New York Times, suggested that maybe flossing is really overrated. Apparently, “officials” have never researched the effectiveness of regular flossing.
Now, millions of people are likely to jump on this as a justification for not flossing. But, in reality, the new media sensation is probably not going to change very much at the end of the day. Why? Because I can confidently tell you – based on more than 25-years of personal experience – most people don’t floss anyway. About all this latest “research” will promote is the possibility that some people will feel just a little less guilty about what others with any sense (common or uncommon) already understand is a pretty good idea.
But, it makes for good press. Doesn’t it?
Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that flossing doesn’t remove plaque. Heck. Some people fail to remove plaque with a toothbrush. That doesn’t mean either fails to benefit the patient, if done properly. I can think of several reasons why flossing helps, though:
Passing floss between the teeth sweeps out the contact point between them – meaning the points where they touch. That’s a source of about 30% of all tooth decay. Your toothbrush typically doesn’t reach those areas, unless you have gaps between your teeth. Floss does reach those areas.
Flossing stimulates blood flow in the gums. One of the body’s first-line mechanisms of defense is to increase blood flow to an affected area. You are effectively helping your body do this in a controlled manner by flossing.
A number of the bacteria under your gums are anaerobic bacteria. That means they don’t grow in room air. So what is a person introducing into the gum pocket when they pull back their gums by flossing? Could it be . . . air? Is it possible that the oxygen in the air could kill some of those bacteria as well?
Think about it.
If we can set aside this newly created question of doubt for just a moment, I would propose that you ask yourself the following question:
“Have I ever flossed consistently?”
By this, I mean every day, and it would have to have included doing so for at least two weeks.
This question is particularly directed to someone if they ever had a gum problem like gingivitis or periodontal disease. Sure, one needs to get rid of tartar and control bacteria as well, but for patients that make the effort to floss (and with only a few qualifications that I can think of), it is almost a sure bet that their gums got better as a result of the daily exercise. First of all, the gums probably bled less afterward. Not in the beginning – to be sure – but after about two weeks of flossing every day, we typically see positive change. Breath improves too. An overall sense of well-being is not out of the question either.
When it comes to flossing sporadically, I agree. It doesn’t help much. It’s kind of like exercising once or twice a month. And let’s face it, that’s where most of the population lives when it comes to flossing — once in a blue moon. Is regular exercise effective, though? What does your common sense tell you?
Why would I hold on to this idea in the face of “new evidence”? Well, I have seen flossing help too many times to just call it a coincidence. Hard core scientists might say “Oh, well, that’s just anecdotal evidence. It doesn’t stand up to real scientific scrutiny.” OK. Then survey practicing dentists. Let’s see if I’m the only one with that observation and experience. I doubt it.
I’m not saying flossing is the only thing you need to do to have healthy gums. It isn’t. Diet and good nutrition are paramount. A healthy immune system doesn’t hurt either. But for Pete’s sake, flossing is cheap, really not all that hard to do once you have practiced it for a while, and it can end up saving you a lot of money in the long run. With health care costs being what they are, I can’t think of too many actions a person can take that bear as much fruit and keep money in their pockets.
But, if the media has just succeeded in making you feel better about not flossing, then OK. Bully for them. (Heaven knows, they do a top notch job spending most of their time getting people to feel less than great.)
And, I suppose there are other ways to handle tooth loss – which, by the way, happens a lot more from gum disease than tooth decay.
I have little doubt that some patients who visit a dentist and are told they have decay, but don’t experience any symptoms, are convinced that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. There are probably several reasons for this. Possibly, they had been to some unscrupulous person in the past who suggested they had a problem, when they really didn’t.
I can see how that might create skepticism. I mean, it’s conceivable that sort of thing could happen.
But even if that were the case, I sincerely don’t believe it represents the behavior of a majority of dentists. Most of the dentists I know genuinely care about what they do and the people they treat. So maybe these skeptics are just people who don’t trust anyone. I don’t know.
The reality, though, is that these patients will eventually be in for a big surprise when the you-know-what hits the fan. Or – and let’s keep this a family column — when the decay hits the nerve.
But that could take a while.
And I believe that could be where some of the problem lies. A patient tries to use this to their advantage — they want to buy some time. After all, it’s not really being a “problem” for them in that they don’t perceive anything as being different. When the problem eventually does occur, I usually hear: “I never thought it would happen to me.”
A doctor detecting treatable decay usually recommends that the patient handle it at their earliest opportunity.
Why? Well, the patient can catch the problem when it is small, when it is less likely to cause post-operative discomfort, and when it will generally cost them a lot less.
But, first, let’s back up a little and explain why it’s possible to have a cavity – several in fact – and have absolutely no symptoms.
Most decay starts on the outer surface of the tooth called the enamel. It’s roughly 97% mineral in consistency and does not contain nerves. That means it has no feeling. Practically zero. Your dentist could DRILL on that part of the tooth and most of the time you won’t feel it.
Notice that in the earlier paragraph I mentioned “treatable” decay. Well, when would decay not be treatable right away? I can’t speak for other dentists, but I typically won’t treat decay when it is confined to the enamel. Why? It has the potential to re-mineralize. In other words, it has the capacity to fix itself – that is, if you don’t continue to do the things that led to the cavity in the first place. Usually, this is related to your diet, but it can be affected by hormones, or even medications.
Why not mention home care first? Isn’t that important too? Of course it is. It just may not be the most important factor.
Another time a dentist might not treat a cavity could relate to the age of the patient. For a much older patient, there are times when the pain or infection are not likely to come up before the patient passes. Of course, your dentist doesn’t have a crystal ball on that point. (Well, probably not.) But, it wouldn’t make sense to recommend treatment in the majority of those cases.
And this takes us back to the nature of a cavity. They often take a long time to get bigger. (But not always…. Again, no crystal ball here.) The reason has to do with the hardness of the enamel itself. Enamel, for you trivia lovers, is the hardest substance in your body. It’s harder than bone, and that property, along with the lack of sensation, can be problematic.
Here’s why: a cavity is often quite small on the outside of the tooth. It’s actually difficult for decay to work its way through that hard enamel. Most of the time it burrows a narrow channel down to the dentin (only a couple of millimeters away) and then it really starts to spread. Because dentin is softer than enamel, it’s just easier for it to spread more quickly there. By the way, this additional, and deeper, decay – very often still doesn’t hurt – as long as it is far enough away from the nerve.
Meanwhile, your enamel is, for the most part, continuing to hold its form. That stuff is hard. But things are generally hollowing out on the inside of the tooth now — out of sight and out of mind — as the decay continues to spread. Painlessly.
Eventually, your tooth can become very much like an eggshell.
Then one fine day you bite on something, and the hard enamel that was still doing its job holding the form of the tooth caves into the hole below. It just got too thin.
Now, at this point, does the skeptic understand that he got a cavity? Sure. Some of them finally get it. But for others –no! It’s more like: “Hey that blowhard dentist was obviously wrong because he talked about me having cavities years ago, and look – I did fine until now. In fact, I probably just lost a filling! Jeez, this hole just came out of nowhere. It’s probably the fault of some earlier dentist.” (Um, Mr. Skeptic never got the filling though. Remember?)
“Hey doc, how much is this going to cost me? $2,400?!!! (For a root canal, buildup and crown.) Are you insane? Just pull it.”
Now you are going to be missing a tooth, and may lose even more teeth as a result. Yet, when the doc first mentioned it, that cavity was only going to cost $150. How can it suddenly become sixteen times more expensive?!
“Rip-off artist. Seems you can’t trust anyone. . . .”
This is a reprint of a column I recently wrote for our office newsletter. While it is only mailed to existing patients, it contains sentiments I wanted to share more broadly. Hopefully, it will help you consider a few things about your dental health and maybe even save you some trouble down the road. While this was directed to the patients in my practice, if you aren’t a patient of mine and haven’t seen your dentist in a while, please reach out to him at your earliest opportunity. Read on and I think you’ll understand why. At least I hope so.
You can save your teeth. How do I know this? After more than 25 years in practice, you get to see a few things.
The two main reasons people give for not taking care of their teeth are time and money. Typically, people will swear they have neither.
I believe that they believe it.
But, here’s the funny thing: when the emergency happens (and it will given enough neglect) most of these same people find the time and the money to handle their problem. Sometimes, it even costs more than it would have to prevent the problem to begin with.
So, what’s that about?
It’s actually pretty simple. One patient summed it up concisely: “I never thought it would happen to me.” You see, I know that most people — deep down — really understand that neglecting their dental health can lead to trouble. But a couple of other things come into play.
First, is this classic error: “If I don’t have dental pain, then everything must be OK.” Here is why that’s just not true. Cavities usually start on tooth enamel. Tooth enamel — being about 97% mineral and not containing any nerves — doesn’t feel pain. Trust me on this. Once you actually do feel pain, it’s bad.
Second, the number one cause of tooth loss (worldwide) isn’t even cavities. It’s periodontal disease. More than half of American’s have it and most don’t have any clue that they do.
Sometimes the first symptom they notice is that their teeth are getting loose.
I can’t tell you how many times a new patient has come in and told me, my front tooth just fell out. (Naturally, it was loose for a while, but that’s the thing — they expected that maybe it would get better or, if they didn’t think about it, they could just ride things out a little while longer — or … they just didn’t think it would happen to them.)
One panicked lady absolutely had to leave the office with all her problems handled that day. After all, she couldn’t let people see her with missing front teeth. It didn’t matter that she let it go for years.
It doesn’t work that way. But you can take care of your teeth. Ask us for help. That’s why we’re here.
The posting below is actually taken from our Weird Dental “Facts” section. It’s an assortment of dental trivia and facts — some true, some we’re not so sure about 😉 — but either way, we hope to entertain, as well as educate you, with our postings.
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This dental fact was prompted by a recent television program I watched that discussed three of the top life-threatening emergencies. We hope you never find yourself confronting this type of problem, so here is the Weird Dental “Fact”:
A dental infection can kill you.
But also true.
A toothache left untreated can, over time, develop an abscess. (An abscess is an infection that fills with pus and debris.)
Periodontal disease, left untreated, can also develop an abscess over time.
The trouble with many dental problems, though, is that in their early stages they are seldom painful.
In fact, sometimes, they aren’t painful even after they become more advanced. So people tend to put off treating cavities and gum disease hoping it will just go away or get better on its own. Then, when it does get worse, they will often put that off as well This is where it can get really dangerous.
One complication of a dental infection is called Ludwig’s Angina. It’s a type of infection that can travel from the roots of the teeth to the floor of the mouth and under the tongue. The infection can spread very quickly, creating a swelling that can block your airway or prevent you from swallowing. This can be life-threatening.
It can be cured with quick treatment that gets the ariway open and with antibiotics, but sometimes surgical intervention is also necessary.
The better solution is to never let your oral health become so neglected as to allow the possibility of this type of infection.
Very often patients ask me about what toothpaste they should use. Seldom, however, am I asked about the best technique for cleaning teeth, when brushing should be done, how often they should brush, or for how long.
The subject of tooth cleansers can be confusing. There are pastes, powders, cavity-fighting and gum-protecting formulas, as well as whitening varieties. Most toothpastes use some form of mild abrasive to clean teeth, while others rely on enzymes to lift the stains out of your teeth. Some are foaming and some are not. Most contain fluoride, while others don’t.
While I do have a personal favorite toothpaste, I honestly believe that an effective job of cleaning can be accomplished with the vast majority of toothpastes available on the market. Why are there so many out there? In a word: marketing. I’m pretty sure toothpaste companies have discovered that if a toothpaste has the word “whitening” on it, they are likely to sell more than if it is omitted — even if the whitening benefit is small.
Some people have even taken to the idea that almost anything will work to clean your teeth. Even soap. Here is a short video I ran across recently that discusses this, and also why you may not want to wash your mouth out with soap. I tend to agree that you should use the right product for the correct purpose.
Click on the toothbrushes below to view the VIDEO:
For the curious, here is an earlier posting that answers some of the other questions discussed above, including how often you should brush.
Dr. Richard Walicki is a Philadelphia dentist practicing general and cosmetic dentistry. While we hope you find the information contained herein interesting and useful, this blog is for informational purposes and is not intended to diagnose any oral disease. Dental conditions should be evaluated by your dental health professional or a qualified specialist.