Many people have gum disease without knowing it and it often comes as surprise when they are told about it at the dentist. Even bigger surprise would be if they knew how many dentists do not recognise the gum disease or know what a comprehensive treatment is for it.
I have seen countless amounts of patients in my career whose gum disease has gone undetected. It’s astounding! I’ve had patients who have visited the hygienist and the dentist every six months but still there is massive amounts of subgingival calculus around every teeth. And it is deep and tough to remove.
Just guess the surprise of the patient when instead of having a 15 minute check-up and 30 minute hygienist visit like normally, she will now need three 60 minute visits to remove the calculus thoroughly and a 4th visit in three months time. To be honest, this upsets me often. It’s not that difficult to diagnose the gum disease. It’s not rocket science for crying out loud!
I have spent way too many hours explaining why my colleagues have not noticed the gum disease. And my efforts for not sounding too annoyed at my fellow professionals sometimes fail miserably. Luckily, most of the patients take it relatively easy and do not demand compensation from the previous dentist. Instead they are normally very grateful that somebody caught the condition.
There will be information for professionals next but the patients benefit of reading it too. If you are a patient you can move on to the end of this post if you want to skip the professional part.
So Why Don’t You Recognise the Gum Disease?
There are five probable reasons (add more to the comment box if you wish).
Lack of time. In 15 minute check-up the dentist should go through the medical history of the patient, check the teeth (loose fillings, decay, fractures etc.), the soft tissues (inside the cheeks, tongue, lips, roof and floor of the mouth and the throat) and the gums. Plus there might be need for the x-rays. Fifteen minutes simply is not enough for this considering that the disinfection business before the next patient should be done as well. Even 30 minute appointment might not be enough.
The X-factor. By X I mean money and it is related to the time issue. Dental practices have 15 minute check-ups because instead of having two patients in an hour that pay X amount for the visit they can have four. Four times X is better than two times X. At least for the practice.
Lack of basic skills. We have an instrument which finds any gum disease from any patients mouth when used correctly. Or when used. It is not by default that this instrument, perio probe finds it’s way to the check-up tray. I have seen dentist doing the check-up by using the sharp explorer only. And even if the perio probe is used, it is used incorrectly and the gum disease goes undetected. Even a gum specialist (periodontist) has failed at this and I will tell you more about it later in this post.
Lack of experience. When you are an experienced dental professional (either a dentist with a great interest in the gum disease or a hygienist) you can recognise gum disease from a distance. I will give you an example.
You sit in a bus on your way home and somebody sits next to you. He yawns and 3 seconds later your nose detects an odour you rather not smell on your free time. Periodontitis (aka gum disease)! Thank goodness the bus has a good ventilation and the odour is soon gone and you hope he keeps his mouth closed for the rest of the journey. Then the guy’s phone rings and it’s his mother…
I can often recognise the gum disease by just looking at the patients mouth. The gums have a certain look on the sites of the pockets. Even if there is only one deep pocket in a healthy mouth, you can spot it out by the looks of the gum. It is difficult to explain how they look so I won’t even try. Anyone experienced know what I mean. The point is that the more you examine the gums and find the sites where the deep pockets, subgingival calculus and gingivitis (bleeding of the gums) are, the more you learn to tell what looks normal and what doesn’t.
But do not worry if you are a newbie. Just learn to use the perio probe correctly and you will be fine!
Forgetting how smoking hides the gum disease. Heavy smoking can make the gum disease invisible to the eye and often the dentists and hygienists are misled by the looks of the heavy smoker’s gums especially if the oral hygiene is good at that very moment. Heavy smoker’s gums look healthy and pale. There’s no sign of the red and swollen gums. No sign of the bleeding after probing. And yet the disease is there.
Even if the gum disease is not visible to the eye with the smoker, it is still there for the perio probe to find but with the smokers you really need to master the technique. Often the smokers gum line is very tight and it is difficult to find access to the pocket (once you do, don’t let it out until you have probed the whole side of the tooth).
Use of the Periodontal Probe
When I was at dental school learning the arts of the dentistry, one of our teachers (a periodontist) said one day annoyingly “They didn’t even know how to use a perio probe!” At that moment we were practicing scaling in the school’s clinic but this outburst was not addressed to us students (thank god as the teacher was scary as hell) but to a group of dental hygienists who had come to revise perio skills at the dental school. This one sentence has stayed in my memory for some reason and only until now I understand what she meant and why she was so annoyed.
Not only the hygienists fail in the technique of the perio probe but also the dentists and even the periodontists. I will tell you about one periodontist who saw one of my patient.
I had referred the patient to the specialist with all the relevant documentation (x-rays, perio chart etc). When I saw the patient 6 months later a course of treatment was finished with the periodontist. I examined the patient’s gums and found a 10 mm pocket on one of the molars. The depth was the same as before referring. The patient told me she was going to have a control visit soon with the periodontist so I wrote letter about the persistent pocket.
Three months later I saw the patient again and nothing was done to it. A periodontist had said to the patient that there is no pocket.
No pocket! I’m going to show you the pocket!
I took my DSLR and put a perio probe into the pocket and fired away. The patient got the photo on cd and gave it to the periodontist on the next visit. I’m afraid my story ends there. I never saw this patient again as she got retired and was not able to see me as we were too expensive.
Ten millimetres deep pocket and it went unnoticed by the specialist even when the location was pointed out. What chances do the rest of us less-educated ones have if the one wearing the black belt in our industry is not able to do it?
Note to all dental professionals who examine patients gums: Please check your perio probe technique. There are plenty of information about the use of the perio probe on the internet plus hands on courses at the dental schools. And those who are not using a perio probe, shame on and start now!
What Is the Gum Disease?
I won’t go much into details about the gum disease but I will tell you the warning signs when you should visit your dentist:
- your gums bleed when brushing/flossing/eating or they bleed spontaneously
- your gums hurt when brushing/flossing/eating
- your teeth have become longer over the years or they have tilted/rotated/moved
- your teeth feel loose
- you have wider gaps between the teeth than before
- somebody has told you often that your breath smells. Gum disease doesn’t always produce bad breath especially in the early stages. It is the advanced periodontitis when the smell can be obvious to everyone else except to the bearer. But how many of you tell the other person that their breath stinks? Not many, unless it is your spouse in concern
The gum disease is always caused by the bacteria in your mouth. When the bacteria is removed effectively and regularly the chances for you getting a gum disease are minimal. But even if you are looking after the teeth well (brushing thoroughly twice a day and cleaning between the teeth once a day with a product that was recommended by the hygienist) go to see your dentist if:
- you are a heavy smoker (here‘s why)
- you have a diabetes
- you are pregnant
If the gum disease is left untreated it will result in loss of tooth. It is also associated with certain illnesses so your general health is to be concerned as well.
If you want to find out more please visit American Academy of Periodontology’s site which provides lots of useful information for the patients.
How Is It Treated and Can I Do It Myself?
The gum disease is treated by simply removing the bacteria (both soft bacteria, plaque and hardened bacteria, calculus) and teaching the patient the correct techniques for removing the soft bacteria regularly by themselves.
Anyone can start better oral hygiene routine at home without seeing a dentist. Getting rid of the daily build up of bacteria effectively may cure the gum disease. This means brushing twice a day with electric toothbrush and cleaning between the teeth preferably with something else than a floss (floss is better than nothing of course). You could try Gum Soft Picks at first. Aim to the size that feels slightly tight between the teeth.
But remember, you are not able to remove the hardened plaque (calculus). Also if the calculus has build up below the gum, you will need to see dentist (for an assessment) and hygienist (for scaling) to stop the gum disease progressing.
There is no easy way out of the gum disease. It will most probably hurt like hell and the gum will bleed (in some cases heavily) in the beginning when you brush and clean between the teeth. If you at this point stop e.g. using an interdental brush that was recommended to you or you use it every second night because you think you are harming the gums, the gums will keep on bleeding and hurting. You will never get out of the vicious cycle. So persevere, be brave and have a faith on us professionals.
Sometimes if the gum disease has advanced to severe stage, you might need surgery on your gums (performed by the periodontist).