September is National Gum Care Month. This event typically comes and goes without much fanfare for the average American, but many dentists recognize it is a chance to bring awareness to gum health and gum disease prevention. Some of these dentists recognize National Gum Care Month as an even greater opportunity to educate patients on how gum health impacts their overall health.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, over 90 percent of American adults suffer from gum disease. The most common form of gum disease is gingivitis; inflammation and irritation of the gums caused by bacteria trapped in the mouth when plaque builds up. Gingivitis causes gums to hurt and bleed, and bleeding gums are a gateway for serious infections.
A more severe form of gum disease is periodontitis: a serious infection that causes permanent damage to gums and the bones that surround teeth. Periodontitis is also responsible for 70 percent of tooth loss in affected adults. Periodontitis is caused by a variety of risk factors including untreated gingivitis, poor dental hygiene habits, genetics, tobacco use and even bite malocclusion.
Beyond its impact in the mouth, untreated periodontitis severely affects the rest of the body. Bacteria from the mouth easily enter the blood stream and attack the heart and lungs, causing myriad complications. Health concerns linked directly to periodontitis include heart disease, stroke, and rheumatoid arthritis.
While periodontitis is linked to serious and even deadly illnesses or conditions in the body, not all dental professionals are committed to the causal relationship, known as the oral-systemic health link, and take a more traditional approach by only offering prophylactic cleanings to prevent or treat gum disease. These dentists may not provide patients with education and resources to understand the serious impact that gum disease has on their overall health.
Other dentists who believe in the oral-systemic health link know that the mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body, and the health of the mouth significantly impacts the health of the body overall. Dr. James Erpenbach, D.D.S., of Knoxville, Tennessee, explains the oral-systemic link as a natural cause-effect relationship, “The mouth is a portal for the rest of the body. What you eat or drink impacts the rest of your body, why wouldn’t the state of your oral hygiene?” Erpenbach continues to offer his support for the oral-systemic link, “We know that connection exists between periodontal diseases and the heart which may result in heart disease, and possibly even death. We already know there’s a relationship between oral and total body health.” Erpenbach is a founding member of the American Academy for Oral-Systemic Health, made up of dentists and other medical professionals who believe in the link between the mouth and the rest of the body. Professionals in the AAOSH promote a variety of educational resources for both medical and dental patients in an effort to improve total patient care.
Treatments for gum disease include antibiotic therapy and scaling, a process in which plaque is manually removed from below the gum line. Some dentists employ the use of ultrasonics to break up and remove plaque. More serious cases of gum disease require surgery and gum tissue transplants.
Dental patients are their own best advocate when it comes to discussing gum and periodontal diseases with their dentists. The American Academy for Oral Systemic Health suggests asking dentists if signs of gum disease are evident during routine cleanings and examinations. If gum disease is confirmed, patients should then request a treatment plan to address concerns and minimize impact. Dentists should take care to identify the bacteria through lab analysis to best treat the patient and target their specific bacterial infection.