Do You Recognise the Gum Disease?

Dental Revelations Blog

Be careful next time you open your mouth in the bus. I might be sitting next to you.

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.

A revelation:

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).

 

 

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Alcohol – The Feared Subject

Dental Revelations Blog-1044

About 60 year-old man came to see me one morning and complained that every once in a while a layer of skin comes off inside his mouth and no-one has been able to tell why. He was concerned and felt that it was happening at that very moment as well.

I took a look at the soft tissues before the treatment and asked if he had used a mouthwash the same morning or the night before. Negative. I asked if he had drank wine last night. The patient’s face went serious and he said he had been drinking whiskey last night. I went on telling without any judgement how alcohol effects the mouth and body – the risks in mouth and the age related risks. He looked like he had eureka moment and was very happy but also shaken as he realised that his alcohol use could be damaging his health in more ways than just one.

Now, this blog post is full of information for dental professionals but there are links that are useful for the patients as well. I will give advice to the patients at the end of this post so move on over there if you want to skip the professional part.

Fear of Asking

Us professionals seem to find it hard to discuss about patient’s alcohol consumption. For some reason we think that alcohol consumption is too personal question to ask. Sometimes also the patients think the same which makes it even more difficult question to ask. But we ask about illnesses, smoking, diet and oral hygiene habits. Why not about alcohol?

Everyone knows that smoking can cause oral cancer. But not so many know that alcohol does the same. And even fewer knows that alcohol and cigarettes combined raise the risk of developing oral cancer many times higher. So dental professionals are on the frontline of preventing oral cancer. This means that asking about alcohol consumption should be a routine thing to do and I’m going to help you with that.

  1. When interviewing the patient about his medical history, oral hygiene routines and smoking, continue without hesitation How about alcohol? Do you use alcohol? Keep the same tone of voice as if you were asking did you watch the footie last night?

This is how the conversation continues:

Patient: Yes, sometimes.
You: How often would you say you drink per week?
P: When we go out after work.
Y: How often did you go out last week?
P: Last week we went out almost every night.
Y: What do you normally drink?
P: Beer.
Y: How many do you drink on your regular night out?
P: Normally 3 or 4 pints and on weekends it can be a lot more…

When you engage patient into discussing about alcohol consumption you are kind of evaluating the patient’s attitude towards the subject. Is he co-operative or defensive? If the latter, you need to advance with very small steps. A piece of information here, a piece there. Whenever the patient is ready to take in information about alcohol.

If the patient is co-operative (you would be surprised how many are!), you can move on to sum up the alcohol units the patient consumed the last week and then give information about how it affects his health. Before you can do this you need to know the facts.

2. Learn the numbers and facts behind the risks of excessive alcohol consumption

The recommended low risk (of developing an alcohol related illnesses) daily units are:

healthy women 0-1 units
healthy men 0-2 units
65+ year-olds no more than 0-2 units (no more than 7 per week)

Learn these by heart or print them out (please note, that the recommendations can vary in different countries).

The oral cancer’s death rate is nearly 50%.

Alcohol is an aldehyde and it is metabolised by oral bacteria to acetaldehyde which is carcinogenic in humans.

This is very short but effective list. With this little information you can have a significant impact on patient’s alcohol consumption.

3. Be a therapist if needed

More than once I have been in a situation with a patient when the patient opens up about his life when we discuss about alcohol. There have been patients who have thought by themselves that they are drinking too much. Some tell the reasons behind them. All they need at this point is that someone listens.

But if you feel like the patient needs more advice and guidance, remember to ask
Do you mind me giving you an advice?

People generally respect you more if you don’t offer advice without asking. Especially when it is about alcohol. Have phone numbers at hand for local AA and offer them if needed.

4. If you didn’t ask about alcohol consumption

Do ask about alcohol every time when

  • there is no improvement on oral hygiene routine despite a great effort, especially if there is lot of plaque every time
  • the soft tissues are bright red and the patient is not using mouthwashes (and even if he is, mention also that alcohol can irritate the soft tissues no matter how it enters the mouth)
  • the mouth is very dry and no other reason is found for it

Reminder to All Dental Professionals

Do check the soft tissues and tongue every time you see the patient. It doesn’t take long and you might be saving somebody’s life. No matter if you are a nurse, hygienist or dentist. All of us can tell if something is normal or not and it doesn’t matter who points out the abnormality in the first place.

Have a dental camera or DSLR with macro lens at hand. Learn to use them so that when you see something suspicious, you are able to take a photo of it and compare it the next time.

This is an area in our profession that is too often neglected.

Information for the Patients

You are in good hands when you are interviewed thoroughly on your very first visit and  and every time when you have your check-up done. If you only needed to fill in a medical history form and no-one asks further questions, it’s not a very good sign. The professionals treating you are not looking after you very well.

Please do take our questions as they are. They are questions for your best interest and health and for good quality of treatment. We need to repeat these questions over and over again every time you come in for your regular check-up.

We will ask about subjects (like alcohol consumption) you would rather not discuss with anyone but please do not hide anything or lie. Most often we can see from the patient’s mouth if we were not told the truth about certain subjects like:

smoking
alcohol consumption
how often you clean between the teeth
do you brush your teeth regularly
certain illnesses

So be honest and don’t be afraid of a judgement. It is not our job to do.


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