When you open your mouth on the dentist’s chair, you expect them to diagnose common oral health issues like gum disease or cavities. But did you know that dentists can discover other non-dental problems that are unrelated to oral health? Your mouth says a lot about your overall health. A close-up assessment reveals so much more than just how well you have been brushing your teeth. Your dentist or orthodontist will also be checking for bumps, sores, lumps or any other swelling and tenderness in your mouth.
The importance of regular dental checkups
Other than brushing and cleaning your teeth daily, the American Dental Association recommends visiting your dentist at regular intervals. Your oral health is closely connected to your overall well-being. During your regular dental checkups, your dentist may uncover important clues about your overall health.
They may be the first to notice swollen or receding gums that might be an early sign of diabetes, worn down tooth enamel that may be a sign that you are suffering from stress, or sores in the mouth, which is a common sign of oral cancer.
The dentist's role
A dentist is a doctor who specialises in oral health. Some of the primary responsibilities of a dentist include:
- Promoting oral health and disease prevention
- Diagnosing oral diseases
- Creating treatment plans to help maintain or restore their patient’s oral health
- Overlooking the safe administration of anaesthetics
- Interpreting diagnostic tests and x-rays
- Performing oral surgical procedures
- Monitoring the healthy growth and the development of teeth and jaws
Dentists’ training also enables them to identify and recognise early warning signs in the mouth that may indicate disease elsewhere in the body. Hence, during a comprehensive oral checkup, your dentist not only examines your teeth and gums but also looks for swelling, discolouration, lumps, ulcerations and any other abnormalities in your mouth.
Non-Dental Ailments Your Dentist Can Help You With
Some of the early signs and symptoms of diabetes manifest themselves in your mouth. Loose teeth, receding gums or a dry mouth can all point to diabetes. According to the American Dental Association, one of the most common dental health issues for most diabetics is Gingivitis. If your dentist spots bleeding gums that are associated with gum disease, they may encourage you to have your blood glucose checked.
According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, Oral cancer accounts for only 2% of cancers diagnosed each year in the US. Oral cancer can affect your gums, inner cheeks, tongue and lips. During your regular dental checkups, your dentist may recognise white or red patches, which are indicative of of oral cancer. These discolourations are located at the back of your throat and may be difficult for you to see but are noticeable to a dentist.
Did you know that your teeth and jaw often unintentionally bear the brunt of your stress levels? When you are having a stressful day, week or month, your body may respond in ways that manifest in your mouth.
Teeth grinding, also known as bruxism, is one of the most common signs of stress. Bruxism can cause severe damage to your teeth if not treated. When stressed, some people tend to clench their jaw during the day. However, when your stress levels are affecting you on a subconscious level, you might be grinding your teeth in your sleep without even realising it. In such a case, your dentist will be able to see the signs during a checkup and advise you on the right course of action to take.
Osteoporosis is popularly known as the weakening of the bones. This condition is common in post-menopausal women, although it can happen to anyone. During your regular dental checkups, your dentist may discover loose teeth or a receding gum line which are indications that some changes are happening in the bone that supports your teeth. If your dentist detects these signs, especially if you are at a higher risk of osteoporosis, they might refer you back to your general physician for a bone density test.
Although people with an eating disorder have a way of hiding this condition, it can be difficult to conceal it from their dentist as the signs show in their mouths. Symptoms such as dry mouth, bleeding gums or erosion on the inner side of the front teeth are all possible signs of an eating disorder. Stomach acid is hard on your tooth enamel. Hence, forced vomit can wear away your teeth’s protective coating, and cause increased sensitivity.
Anemia is a condition in which your body does not have enough red blood cells in circulation. Some of the telltale oral signs of anemia include your tongue losing its bumpy texture and becoming smooth or the lining of your mouth growing pale.
Once dentists spot any signs of oral disease, they prescribe appropriate medication to stop the problem from spreading further. Oral infections often occur after suffering trauma to your mouth, a dental procedure or other issues. Some of the most common signs of oral disease include drainage from the tooth or wound, swelling, severe pain, redness and fevers. Treating oral infections immediately is important as they can get to other parts of your body, including the heart and lungs.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ).
The Temporomandibular joints help to open and close your mouth, speak, chew and swallow. These joints are located on the sides of your head. If these joints, muscles and ligaments in the surrounding area stop working correctly, you may suffer from a TMJ disorder. According to the American Dental Association, joint pain may be as a result of arthritis, bruxism, a dislocation or an injury or even poor jaw and tooth alignment.
Maintaining Fresh Breath.
This may be very obvious to most, but there's more to fresh breath than a twice-yearly scale and polish and instruction in correct tooth brushing. Or, worse still, trying to mask the problem with mints or mouthwash! Your dentist can identify the source of any disagreeable mouth odour, usually gum disease you didn't know you had, but sometimes also tongue furring, long-standing dormant tooth abscesses as well as rarer conditions.
How many times do we wake up feeling we've spent the night chewing gum? And how many times do we attribute headaches to stress and 'migraines'? There is a multitude of causes of recurring head pain associated with teeth, occlusion (the way we bite and chew), chewing muscles, jaw joints, sinuses - in short, areas your dentist is specialised in.
In many cases an accurate diagnosis of the cause of the headaches leads to relatively simple ways to manage them. Exercises, bite splints, minor corrections to the bite and even referral to ENT and other specialists are just part of your dentist's daily routine.
Your dentist can usually tell whether you would be a candidate for referral to a specialist, or whether a simple made-to-measure jaw-repositioning appliance can help you.
During regular dental checkups, a dentist may spot some symptoms that indicate that a patient has HIV. In paediatric cases, a patient’s salivary gland may swell, resulting in a dry mouth. Also, children with HIV are more prone to viruses such as HPV oral candidiasis, herpes zoster, herpes simplex and oral lesions.
In adults, some of the common oral signs of HIV include oral warts, white, purple, brown or red spots in the mouth or on the tongue, lesions and other infections. While these symptoms alone do not necessarily mean that you are infected with HIV, your dentist may recommend that you visit your health professional for a blood test.
The importance of oral health
It is important that dental checkups are started as early as when a child hits one year old to establish a dental home. This way, the dentist will be able to guide both the parents and kids, provide preventive oral health services, diagnose and treat dental and health diseases in their earliest stages to maintain optimal oral and general health throughout.
The Bottom Line
If we consider these non-dental ailments and quite a few other services our dentists can provide, we may well start considering our dentist a little more than a stereotypical tooth doctor - if in doubt, don't hesitate to ask!