When I started learning about dentistry I was under the impression that the reason that we had our teeth cleaned a couple of times a year was so that they wouldn’t one day, way down the line, get wiggly and fall out. Cavities seemed like a now thing, but gum disease seemed like a disease that really wouldn’t effect me until I was much older and toothless.
Well, it seems like that impression was wrong in a lot of ways. Cavities are scary, but they are fairly easy to prevent, and when prevention fails their restoration is not that hard. But this gum disease stuff… that’s another story.
When I was tasked with writing a research report for my freshman year dental studies, Dr. Oliver a local periodontist provided me with some journal articles that he titled broadly, “Floss or Die”. Anything this exciting worked for me compared with a lot of the other topics that we had to choose from. Mind you this was 1998 and the whole idea that what was happening in the mouth was effecting the rest of the body was still a new concept. These journal articles are where I first learned about the mouth body connection, and how there are dozens of cascades in the body, like chain reactions that can start in any one of many places and spread throughout.
Inflammatory mediators, inflammatory cytokines, interleukins, tumor necrosis factor; all new exciting words for me at the time, but now we know that these are the same chemicals that effect the heart, the brain, your ability to metabolize sugar and regulate it’s level in the blood. They effect the speed of wound healing, the chances of having problems while pregnant, arthritis, and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and most likely several types of cancer.
When I went to dental school I was excited about all the instruments and power tools. I still often see myself as a tooth carpenter, but what might be the most important job that I do for my patients is not fixing the broken tooth, but rather detecting the presence of inflammation in their gums and at the tips of their roots that could be leading to fires in other parts of their body. Sometimes the smoking embers we see in the mouth can give notice to much larger problems in other places in the body.
It’s all so fascinatingly connected. I’m sure as we learn more our team will find new ways to help, and I’m very much looking forward to being able to help keep my patients healthy and smiling!