Periodontal (gum) disease is the major cause of tooth loss in adults. According to The Journal of Preventive Dentistry, it “is one of the most common diseases known to mankind. It affects about nine out of every 10 adults over the age of 50 and about 75% of those between the ages of 35 and 50.” Even young children can show early signs of the disease. Unless treated, it destroys the tooth-supporting structures. So if you want to keep your teeth, you should be concerned not only about cavities but also about gum disease.
And, yet, many people do not realize they have gum disease. In its early stages, it usually is not painful. How can you know if you have it?
Recognizing the Symptoms
The most common form of gum disease is an inflammation of the gums (known as gingivitis). Any unusual redness of the gum tissues indicates inflammation. Of course, spontaneous bleeding under pressure, or a “pink toothbrush,” is an obvious sign of gum inflammation.
“Pyorrhea” (or, periodontitis) is a more advanced form of gum disease, affecting the jawbone as well as the gums. It usually is recognized by the pus that can be squeezed out around the teeth when pressure is exerted on the gums. However, pus flow is the end result of the chronic disease process, not the disease itself. Generally, there is mouth odor and a bad taste in the mouth, and the gums appear very smooth and flabby. The recession of the gums away from the teeth is another symptom. Excessive tooth movement indicates that the disease has affected the deeper structures. Tooth migration or drifting can also be noted in some areas, causing spaces between the teeth or misalignment.
‘What causes gum disease?’ you may be wondering.
Plaque Formation—A Significant Factor
Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria, together with partially digested food debris, that forms continuously on your teeth. It can cause much damage.
When you eat, plaque uses the sugar from your food to produce acids. These acids and other irritants can inflame the gums and make them sensitive and more likely to bleed. If left on your teeth, plaque can lead to even more serious problems.
Deposits of calcium salts from your saliva cause the plaque to harden and thicken and become tightly joined to the teeth. At this point it is called calculus (or, tartar). As calculus accumulates, its surface is rough and it causes the gums slowly to detach from the teeth. This leaves pockets around the teeth that become filled with bacteria, food debris and pus. Eventually, the bone structure also can be affected. In some cases, it seems to melt away and the teeth begin to loosen. What happens can be compared to rocking a fence post back and forth in the ground—it becomes more and more movable. Unless something is done to arrest the disease, loss of the affected teeth is imminent.
Is there anything you can do to prevent gum disease?
The best way to prevent gum disease is to keep your teeth relatively plaque free. How?
“Cut down on sugar to help limit plaque growth and its irritation. Avoid sugary snacks and sweets that stick to your teeth,” recommends the American Dental Association.
Additionally, remove the plaque by brushing your teeth thoroughly at least twice a day, preferably after every meal. And clean between your teeth daily with dental floss. Since plaque forms every day, it is important to remove it before it hardens and forms calculus.
Regular dental checkups can also help. Your dentist can determine if there are any changes in the gum tissues and the bone around your teeth. He can let you know how good a job you are doing in keeping your teeth plaque free and perhaps tell you how to use your toothbrush more effectively.
While your doing your best to keep your teeth plaque free can help to prevent gum disease, there are a number of other causes that explain why some people are more susceptible to the disease than others.
Why Some Are More Susceptible
Certain diseases, such as anemia and diabetes, affect the gum and bone structures of the mouth and thus can make some persons more susceptible to the disease. The hormonal balance within the body, too, is believed to contribute to the periodontal condition.
Proper nutrition is also a factor, since the food you eat affects your body as a whole, including the gums and bones that support your teeth. A dietary lack of essential vitamins and minerals can make you more susceptible to the disease.
There are also a number of local factors that can cause gum irritation and allow pockets to form around the teeth. These include: fillings that do not make proper contact with adjacent teeth; overhanging fillings, that is, those in which the filling material extends beneath the gum tissue, causing irritation; loss of a tooth, and teeth that do not make balanced contact when the jaws are closed.
Then, too, soft diet can be a factor in the development of gum disease, because the basis for resistance to the disease is vigorous blood circulation in the tissues. The toothbrush can help to make up for the lack of stimulation due to a soft diet, but only if it is used vigorously and properly.
Much has been written about the relation of smoking and the use of betel nut to gum disease. Generally speaking, there is a higher incidence of gum disease among those who use such products, especially when this is combined with poor oral hygiene.
Perhaps you are one of the millions who are already afflicted with gum disease. You, then, may be wondering . . .
What Can Be Done?
‘All you really need to do is brush your teeth better,’ many feel. However, if you already have the disease, good professional help should be sought. Why?
Every case of gum disease that has not progressed too far requires a thorough scaling and polishing of the teeth. This involves the removal of the calculus and plaque deposits on all tooth surfaces above and below the gum line. The calculus is too hard for you to remove by simply brushing your teeth.
In addition, if you have high spots, that is, if your teeth do not make balanced contact when you close your jaws, your dentist may have to adjust the way your teeth come together. This will prevent your teeth from becoming mobile and allowing pockets to form. Also, the replacement of any missing teeth helps to keep the remaining teeth from drifting.
A thorough program of treatment includes the replacement of poorly done fillings. Why? Well, this helps to restore adequate contact between the teeth and prevents food impaction. It also enables you to clean your teeth more easily.
Surgical techniques have been developed to treat and even arrest some fairly advanced cases of gum disease. Years ago, treatment was directed at eliminating the basic sign of pyorrhea, pus flow. Now, however, periodontists think in terms of achieving stabilization of the teeth, reattachment of the gum tissues to the tooth and regeneration of some lost bone. The latter can perhaps be done only in a few instances.
But, remember, treatment is not always successful in more advanced cases. The removal of affected teeth and denture construction is sometimes a necessary alternative.
Do Your Part
“Unless you cooperate, you might as well save your money,” said one professional. Yes, for any treatment to be successful, you must do your part.
You must become proficient at cleaning your teeth, not simply brushing them. Bacterial plaque can be eliminated from the tooth surfaces through thorough, vigorous use of brush, floss and periodontal aid or stimulator. Of course, you will need good self-discipline to put these methods into practice.
So, what about you? Do you have healthy teeth and supporting tissues? If you do, take care of them!
Gum disease has reached epidemic proportions in all parts of the earth. Nevertheless, the capabilities of the dental profession to prevent some aspects of this affliction have improved greatly. So have methods of treatment and control after it has developed. Losing your teeth is not necessarily unavoidable in old age. For many people, gum disease can be checked and a healthy condition maintained by appropriate professional treatment, conscientious home care and sound nutritional habits.
Remember, you are the person most responsible for the care of your teeth. So take care of your teeth—if you hope to keep them!