Your gums and jaw bone provide the support to your teeth and are at the front line of bacterial infection of the body. Gum disease not only matters as far as your mouth is concerned; it is linked to many other more serious health issues.
It’s a cliche, but there is no point in having an amazing house on poor or wobbly foundations. Quite often people think of dentists as only being worried about teeth, but gum disease is also a main area of concern and treatment. We would love our patients to care just as much about healthy gums, but in many situations, out of sight is out of mind.
So just how serious is gum disease?
Studies show that about 50 % of us have gum disease – (also known as periodontal disease) and that about 10% have it in a more severe form. Not everyone has it around every tooth, but it is more common around the molar teeth which are harder to clean and floss at the back of the mouth.
Put simply, gum disease is caused by bacterial infection. Thorough and appropriate cleaning of your teeth and gums is the number one means of preventing or reducing the problem. If you have good habits from an early age you may never develop gum disease, or you may only experience it in a mild form.
So how does gum disease develop?
As stated above, gum disease is primarily caused by bacteria, or more specifically an imbalance or excess of bacteria where to tooth and gum meet. In a healthy situation, the gum and jaw bone cover and support the entire root of the tooth, providing a strong foundation and a good seal. If not cleaned off regularly, the bacteria cause local inflammation which results in bleeding and damage. This bleeding is often triggered by brushing and flossing, which often results in people being scared to continue to do this properly.
If anything, you should be increasing your oral hygiene habits and getting professional advice to assess and treat your specific problem. Clean teeth mean fewer bacteria and less bleeding.
As gum disease advances the pocket between the tooth and gum gets deeper, and the bone support worsens. Teeth can become loose, prone to more acute swellings and infections and eventually may need to be removed. The presence of bacteria, and food particles breaking down also causes bad breath. It becomes much more difficult for you to clean below the gumline which means you need to rely on your dental professional to maintain things beyond your essential visits.
Gum disease is mostly painless, which is why it can come as a surprise to find out you have issues if you have not been to the dentist for a while. It is not something you “ catch” from someone else, nor is it something you can treat once and expect it to go away.
Smoking and diabetes are the 2 major contributing factors that make gum disease worse. Others include genetic factors and other medical conditions. But no matter what, good cleaning is the number one factor in reducing its impact.
There are of course, other serious matters that are associated with gum disease. The take-away message is that having chronic inflammation and infection anywhere in the body is poor for your health. Imagine you had an open and infected wound the size of a computer mouse on your forearm that had been present for years. It would probably get your attention and you would do everything you could to seek treatment. When you have moderate to advanced gum disease, the total infected area can be of a similar size, despite the fact that it is painless and out of view.
Heart disease and vascular disease have long been associated with gum problems. The increased inflammation and immune response to the bacteria of the mouth is associated with thickening of the blood vessel walls, atherosclerosis and therefore and increase in blood pressure.
Other poor health outcomes that correlate with poor gum health include stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and bacteria in the blood which can infect the heart and other areas.
How does your oral health professional assess and treat gum disease?
We are trained to look for the signs of gum disease which includes checking for signs of bleeding, measuring the depths of gum pockets adjacent to teeth, and checking for scale and build up below the gum line that provide a hide out for bacteria. We can also check to see how solid teeth are and how well supported they are by bone. This involves a clinical examination and the use of X rays to assess and monitor issues as time progresses.
Treatment comes down to cleaning to remove the scale and bacteria. For many people, having a clean twice a year is enough to keep the problems under control. Dental professionals have specialised instruments and training that can help us get to the more challenging areas that you are unable to access. In some instances, we may find that the problem is progressing, and require more regular or thorough cleaning, or refer you to a Specialist Periodontist.
What is worth noting, is that how you clean and care for your teeth every day at home, has a far greater impact on your long – term gum and general health than what we can do as health professionals. As always, brush twice a day, floss daily and get good advice on your specific needs. It is a worthy cause.