There’s more to teeth than meets the eye. Hidden beneath the visible crown are the tooth’s roots set within the jawbone, secured and protected by the gums from bacteria and infection. But if the gums shrink back (recede), the roots become exposed and susceptible to disease, especially at the points where multiple roots branch from each other, areas called furcations.
It all begins with periodontal (gum) disease caused by built-up bacterial plaque from insufficient brushing and flossing. The infection triggers inflammation that over time weakens gum tissues. They begin to detach from the teeth, which can eventually lead to gum recession and root exposure.
This also causes bone loss, especially at the furcations. We can detect any loss (known as a furcation invasion) and how far along it may be with x-ray imaging or by manually probing with an instrument called a periodontal probe.
There are three general classes measuring furcation invasions. In the earliest, Class I, we can feel the invasion as a slight groove; in Class II, it increases to two or more millimeters across. In Class III the bone loss extends from one side of the root all the way to the other (a “through and through”).
At this stage a patient is in danger of losing the tooth, so we’ll have to act promptly. This means first removing accumulated dental plaque and calculus (tartar) to stop the infection and allow the gums to heal. With severe damage, we may need to assist healing with bone and gum tissue grafting, in which we place donor grafts to serve as scaffolding for the appropriate tissue to grow upon.
You can help prevent this situation by practicing effective daily hygiene and visiting your dentist for thorough cleanings at least twice a year (or more if recommended). And at the first signs of a gum infection—swollen, reddened or bleeding gums—make an appointment as soon as possible to have it checked. The sooner we can detect and treat gum disease, the less likely a furcation invasion or worse will be in your future.
While we often associate tooth decay with cavities forming in a tooth’s visible or biting surfaces, the occurrence of this all too common disease isn’t limited to those areas. Cavities can develop in any part of a tooth exposed to bacteria.
Gum recession, the shrinking back of the gums from the teeth, can cause such exposure in areas normally covered by the gums. Because these areas are usually more vulnerable to infection when exposed, cavities can develop at or right below the gum line. Because of their location it can be difficult to fill them or perform other treatments.
One way to make it less difficult is to perform a crown lengthening procedure. While the term sounds like we’re increasing the size of the tooth, we’re actually surgically altering the gums to access more of the affected tooth surface for treatment. It’s typically performed in a dental office with local anesthesia by a general dentist or a periodontist, a specialist in the gums.
During the procedure, the dentist starts by making small incisions in the gums to create a tissue “flap” that can be lifted out of the way. This exposes the underlying bone, which they then reshape to support the gum tissue once it’s re-situated in its new position. The dentist then sutures the gums back in place. Once the gums heal, the decayed area is ready for treatment.
Crown lengthening is also useful for other situations besides treating cavities. If a tooth has broken off at the gum line, for example, there may not be enough remaining structure to support a crown. Crown lengthening can make more of the underlying tooth available for the crown to “grab” onto. It’s also useful in some cases of “gummy smiles,” in which too much of the gum tissue is visible in proportion to the tooth size.
Because crown lengthening often involves removing some of the bone and is thus irreversible, you should discuss this procedure with your dentist in depth beforehand. It could be, though, this minor procedure might make it easier to preserve your teeth and even make them look more attractive.
Over a lifetime, teeth can endure temperatures ranging from freezing to near boiling, biting forces of as much as 150 pounds per square inch and a hostile environment teeming with bacteria. Yet they can still remain healthy for decades.
But while they’re rugged, they’re not indestructible — they can incur serious damage from tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease, two of the most prevalent oral infections. If that happens, you could be faced with the choice of removing the tooth or trying to save it.
Because today’s restorations like dental implants are quite durable and amazingly life-like, it might seem the decision is a no-brainer — just rid your mouth of the troubled tooth and replace it. But from a long-term health perspective, it’s usually better for your gums, other teeth and mouth structures to try to save it.
How we do that depends on the disease and degree of damage. Tooth decay, for example, starts when high levels of acid soften the minerals in the outer enamel. This creates a hole, or cavity, that we typically treat first by filling with metal amalgam or, increasingly, composite resins color-matched to the tooth.
If decay has invaded the pulp (the innermost layer of the tooth), you’ll need a root canal treatment. This procedure removes infected material from the pulp and replaces the empty chamber and the root canals with a special filling to guard against another infection. We then cap the tooth with a life-like crown for added protection.
Gum disease, on the other hand, is caused by dental plaque (a thin film of bacteria and food particles on tooth surfaces), and requires a different approach. Here, the strategy is to remove all of the plaque and calculus (hardened plaque deposits) we can find with special hand instruments or ultrasonic equipment, and often over several sessions. If the infection extends deeper or has created deep pockets of disease between the teeth and gums, surgery or more advanced techniques may be necessary.
Though effective, some of these treatments can be costly and time-consuming; the tooth itself may be beyond repair. Your best move is to first undergo a complete dental examination. From there, we can give you your best options for dealing with a problem tooth.
If you would like more information on the best treatment approach for your teeth, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Save a Tooth or Get an Implant?”
For lots of sports fans, March is the month to get caught up in basketball “madness.” But many people forget that basketball—whether it's played on a school court or a big-city arena—can be just as dangerous for your teeth as some “full-contact” sports. Just ask Chicago Bulls point guard Kris Dunn. In the last three minutes of the January 17 NBA game between the Bulls and the Golden State Warriors, Dunn stole the ball and went in for the dunk. But the momentum from his fast break left him tumbling head-over-heels, and his face hit the floor.
The game stopped as Dunn was evaluated by medical staff; they found he had dislocated his two front teeth. The next day, the Bulls announced that his teeth had been stabilized and splinted—but Dunn would be out indefinitely because of a concussion.
Teeth that are loosened or displaced are known in dental terminology as luxated. These are fairly common dental injuries in both children and adults—but surprisingly, they don't always produce painful symptoms. Treating luxated teeth generally involves repositioning them and then splinting them in place for stability. Depending on the severity of the injury, the outlook for splinted teeth can be quite favorable. However, it may involve several treatments over a period of time—for example, a root canal if the tooth's inner pulp has been damaged, and possibly additional restorative or cosmetic work.
If the injured teeth can't be saved, they can usually be replaced by dental implants or a bridge. Bridges rely on adjacent teeth (also called abutment teeth) for their support. These teeth must be prepared (reduced in size) to accommodate the dental crowns that will hold the bridge in place, as well as the ones that will replace the missing tooth or teeth. Dental implants, today's gold standard of tooth replacement, are supported by root-like inserts made of titanium that are set directly into the jawbone. These dental implants support lifelike crowns that look and feel like natural teeth, and can last for years with routine care.
Better still, many dental injuries can be prevented by wearing a protective mouthguard. We can provide a custom-fabricated mouthguard, made from an exact model of your bite, which offers the maximum in comfort and protection. This is a vital piece of safety equipment that should be part of every sports enthusiast's gear.
With good dental care, it's a sure bet that Kris Dunn will be smiling when he returns to the court. We wish him a speedy recovery.
If you have questions about treating injured teeth or obtaining a custom mouthguard, please contact our office or schedule a consultation. You can read more in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Trauma and Nerve Damage to Teeth” and “Athletic Mouthguards.”
If you’ve had issues with periodontal (gum) disease, no doubt a few things have changed for you. You may be seeing us for dental cleanings and checkups more frequently and you have to be extra diligent about your daily brushing and flossing.
There’s one other thing you may need to do: change your diet. Some of the foods you may be eating could work against you in your fight against gum disease. At the same time, increasing your intake of certain foods could boost your overall oral health.
The biggest culprits in the first category are carbohydrates, which make up almost half the average diet in the Western world, mainly as added sugar. Although carbohydrates help fuel the body, too much can increase inflammation—which also happens to be a primary cause of tissue damage related to gum disease.
Of course, we can’t paint too broad a brush because not all carbohydrates have the same effect on the body. Carbohydrates like sugar or processed items like bakery goods, white rice or mashed potatoes quickly convert to glucose (the actual sugar used by the body for energy) in the bloodstream and increase insulin levels, which can then lead to chronic inflammation. Complex or unprocessed carbohydrates like vegetables, nuts or whole grains take longer to digest and so convert to glucose slowly—a process which can actually hinder inflammation.
Eating less of the higher glycemic (the rate of glucose conversion entering the bloodstream) carbohydrates and more low glycemic foods will help reduce inflammation. And that’s good news for your gums. You should also add foods rich in vitamins C and D (cheese and other dairy products, for instance) and antioxidants to further protect your oral health.
Studies have shown that changing to a low-carbohydrate, anti-inflammatory diet can significantly reduce chronic inflammation in the body and improve gum health. Coupled with your other efforts at prevention, a better diet can go a long way in keeping gum disease at bay.
If you would like more information on the role of diet in dental health, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Carbohydrates Linked to Gum Disease.”
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