So, when was your last trip to the dentist’s office? Some people absolutely love to come in and see their hygienist. They always have a clean bill of health and get a positive dopamine hit from hearing how well they’ve been doing between visits. Other folks – well, they don’t like to sit in the big chair. They don’t like to feel judged for their imperfections. And they will only come to the dentist when something hurts or they noticed something changed suddenly. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a deep enough understanding of their body or their oral health to make that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” decision wisely. Here are some things you should be aware of if you’ve been putting off your annual check-ups.
There are both hard and soft tissues in your mouth that need care and maintenance every day, and sometimes they need a little professional help. Cavities affect the hard structures of your teeth, the dentin and enamel. Enamel is on the outside of the tooth and acts like a suit of armor for the tooth. Once dentin gets exposed in your mouth, it’s more susceptible to the acids in the foods we eat and drink, and cavities in dentin can progress rapidly. Deep cavities can also affect the dental pulp – the nerve and blood vessel at the center of the tooth. Untreated deep cavities can lead to abscesses that might hurt for a short time, then the pain goes away. Unfortunately, this is not a sign that everything is OK.
Your gums don’t get cavities, but they can have other problems. In dentistry we call gum disease “periodontitis.” This comes from the Greek terms “perio” and “odontos, meaning “around the tooth.” You may have heard the terms “tartar,” or “calculus.” Calculus is the technical term for the hard buildup many people develop on their teeth, over time. Tartar is the colloquial term. When calculus builds up on the sides of your teeth, it can act like a splinter stuck in your gums. You may not notice it happening, but the long-term effects of that splinter can cause your gums to recede along the root surface. This can cause teeth to become sensitive to cold and possibly to acidic foods, and in severe cases the teeth can become loose. An annual visit with a dentist and hygienist, combined with your own effective daily care of your teeth and mouth, can prevent problems from gum disease.
Just like every other system in the human body, the head and neck are susceptible to many different kinds of cancer. Dental professionals are on the lookout for signs of cancer every time we look at you – and we do a formal oral cancer screening at least once a year. Many years ago, tobacco was considered to be the main source of oral cancers. Lately, it’s estimated that 70% of oral cancers in the United States are related to Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). There are over 100 different strains of HPV, and 40 of those strains are spread by sexual contact to both the genital areas and the mouth and throat. Some symptoms of oral cancer might not prompt you to seek care, but these should – long lasting sore throat, difficulty speaking or swallowing, chronically swollen lymph nodes, or even an unexplained hoarse voice.
Your dental health is an aspect of your well-being you should not ignore. Most dental concerns will not go away without treatment. In 1605 Miguel de Cervantes wrote “Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond,” which despite the gender specificity is no less true today.
Kevin Maskell, DMD is the owner/operator of Dental Arts of Tucson on the NW corner of Grant and Country Club. He spent 15 years as an active-duty Air Force officer before and after dental school, and still serves with your Arizona Air National Guard. When not saving the world one smile at a time, he enjoys spending time with his lovely wife and building Lego with his 2 creative boys.