You may have heard the phrase “the mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body.” The mouth is connected to the rest of the body, and the only healthcare providers who spend time examining this area are your dental team. The days of the dentist being just the “tooth fixer” are gone. The key here is the practitioner thinking “outside the box” and treating each patient’s total-body health.
The average physician spends seven minutes every two years with a patient. There may be a 5 second glance inside the mouth during those visits. If you see a dentist on a regular basis, we (dentists and hygienists) spend an hour twice a year concentrating on a very specific region of the body. There is a lot of information available within that tiny little space.
For example, everyone has heard of gum disease. While many patients and dentists see periodontal (gum) disease as a tooth or oral health problem, the fact is, it is a bacterial disease and bacteria can travel throughout the body. About a dozen of the nearly 7,000 types of oral bacteria can wreak havoc on the body, not just the oral cavity.
In a study that looked at blood clots from acute heart attack and stroke patients, researchers found that oral bacteria in the clots were 16 times more concentrated than in the surrounding blood. I think it is safe to say that sometimes there is more going on than what we can see in the dental chair.
Some dentists are recommending salivary testing as they believe that it is a crucial part of diagnosing and reversing oral bacteria and inflammation. The salivary tests can show whether patients have abnormally high levels of the specific bacteria associated with heart disease, diabetes, and other total-body conditions. Diagnosis can then lead to treating the bacteria with a combination of antibiotics, antimicrobials and specific homecare techniques. In a perfect world, this information would be shared with the rest of the patient’s medical team to be able to provide comprehensive total-body care.
This is the same reason many dentists screen patients for sleep-disordered breathing. Sleep affects the function of the entire body. For a dentist, there is more to screening for sleep apnea than simply asking patients about snoring. Bruxing (grinding), clenching, and gastric reflux are just a few other signs to look deeper and ask more questions. It is believed that some patients who grind or clench their teeth at night do so as the bodies response to poor air flow. In addition, experts feel that many children diagnosed with attention deficit disorders may have airway problems that are contributing to, or causing the problem.
Nutrition is another area that should have more emphasis from the dental community. While dentists and hygienists often talk to patients about how sugar affects teeth, they should also be educating patients on how other foods, such as processed carbohydrates, cause body-wide inflammation.
This just touches on some of the systemic issues which can be screened for, and make a huge difference in patient lives. There is a link between your mouth and the rest of your body.
Dr. St. Clair maintains a private dental practice in Rowley and Newburyport dedicated to health-centered family dentistry. He has a special interest in treating sleep apnea and TMJ problems. If there are certain topics you would like to see written about or questions you have please email them to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.