Many people believe that since they aren’t experiencing dental symptoms – like tooth pain or bleeding gums – then all must be well.
Unfortunately, a sizable number of dental problems, including cavities and periodontal disease (bone loss around your teeth), just don’t produce obvious symptoms in their early stages. At least not symptoms that tend to be obvious to patients.
In fact, by the time people the average person experiences pain, his dental issue is typically pretty far along. And all too often, by then, the problem can also be quite expensive to handle.
It might amaze you to discover the types of problems your average dentist encounters every week, many of which you would expect to be painful, but they just aren’t. They can still result in tooth loss though.
Pretty much anyone who has ever worked in a dental office for any length of time will tell you this is so. And they will tell you that you can inform some people that they have a problem, but unless it is “real” to them, they just won’t do anything about it.
They may come back a few years later (or maybe sooner) – usually with an emergency – desperately wanting to save the tooth that you told them about earlier. Of course, by now, it may be too late. And very often they will have forgotten it was ever discussed at all, because it was never a realistic problem for them to begin with.
Human nature can be funny that way.
So, keeping that in mind, it’s generally a good idea to get checked out by a dentist. Regularly.
The best news you can hear is that everything looks great.
But sometimes getting a confirmation that you don’t have cavities or gum disease is not the only reason to get a dental exam. Over the years, I have detected cancer (not just oral cancer) – as well as a host of other non-dental problems – that might have been overlooked had the patient not scheduled an exam. Obviously, we refer patients to an appropriate specialist for treatment when we discover medical problems outside the scope of dental practice.
Other benefits of getting a dental exam: I can recall many patients who told me that what they thought were unrelated health problems simply resolved when their oral problems were gotten under control. These have included digestive problems, low energy problems, elevated blood cell counts, hypertension, and more.
Over the years, some people have told me they don’t want to get a dental exam because they don’t want to discover they have any problems. I guess that works.
Just maybe not too well.
Your overall health is connected to your oral health. Take a look at this infographic. Then think it over. . . .
I have little doubt that some patients who visit a dentist and are told they have decay, but don’t experience any symptoms, are convinced that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. There are probably several reasons for this. Possibly, they had been to some unscrupulous person in the past who suggested they had a problem, when they really didn’t.
I can see how that might create skepticism. I mean, it’s conceivable that sort of thing could happen.
But even if that were the case, I sincerely don’t believe it represents the behavior of a majority of dentists. Most of the dentists I know genuinely care about what they do and the people they treat. So maybe these skeptics are just people who don’t trust anyone. I don’t know.
The reality, though, is that these patients will eventually be in for a big surprise when the you-know-what hits the fan. Or – and let’s keep this a family column — when the decay hits the nerve.
But that could take a while.
And I believe that could be where some of the problem lies. A patient tries to use this to their advantage — they want to buy some time. After all, it’s not really being a “problem” for them in that they don’t perceive anything as being different. When the problem eventually does occur, I usually hear: “I never thought it would happen to me.”
A doctor detecting treatable decay usually recommends that the patient handle it at their earliest opportunity.
Why? Well, the patient can catch the problem when it is small, when it is less likely to cause post-operative discomfort, and when it will generally cost them a lot less.
But, first, let’s back up a little and explain why it’s possible to have a cavity – several in fact – and have absolutely no symptoms.
Most decay starts on the outer surface of the tooth called the enamel. It’s roughly 97% mineral in consistency and does not contain nerves. That means it has no feeling. Practically zero. Your dentist could DRILL on that part of the tooth and most of the time you won’t feel it.
Notice that in the earlier paragraph I mentioned “treatable” decay. Well, when would decay not be treatable right away? I can’t speak for other dentists, but I typically won’t treat decay when it is confined to the enamel. Why? It has the potential to re-mineralize. In other words, it has the capacity to fix itself – that is, if you don’t continue to do the things that led to the cavity in the first place. Usually, this is related to your diet, but it can be affected by hormones, or even medications.
Why not mention home care first? Isn’t that important too? Of course it is. It just may not be the most important factor.
Another time a dentist might not treat a cavity could relate to the age of the patient. For a much older patient, there are times when the pain or infection are not likely to come up before the patient passes. Of course, your dentist doesn’t have a crystal ball on that point. (Well, probably not.) But, it wouldn’t make sense to recommend treatment in the majority of those cases.
And this takes us back to the nature of a cavity. They often take a long time to get bigger. (But not always…. Again, no crystal ball here.) The reason has to do with the hardness of the enamel itself. Enamel, for you trivia lovers, is the hardest substance in your body. It’s harder than bone, and that property, along with the lack of sensation, can be problematic.
Here’s why: a cavity is often quite small on the outside of the tooth. It’s actually difficult for decay to work its way through that hard enamel. Most of the time it burrows a narrow channel down to the dentin (only a couple of millimeters away) and then it really starts to spread. Because dentin is softer than enamel, it’s just easier for it to spread more quickly there. By the way, this additional, and deeper, decay – very often still doesn’t hurt – as long as it is far enough away from the nerve.
Meanwhile, your enamel is, for the most part, continuing to hold its form. That stuff is hard. But things are generally hollowing out on the inside of the tooth now — out of sight and out of mind — as the decay continues to spread. Painlessly.
Eventually, your tooth can become very much like an eggshell.
Then one fine day you bite on something, and the hard enamel that was still doing its job holding the form of the tooth caves into the hole below. It just got too thin.
Now, at this point, does the skeptic understand that he got a cavity? Sure. Some of them finally get it. But for others –no! It’s more like: “Hey that blowhard dentist was obviously wrong because he talked about me having cavities years ago, and look – I did fine until now. In fact, I probably just lost a filling! Jeez, this hole just came out of nowhere. It’s probably the fault of some earlier dentist.” (Um, Mr. Skeptic never got the filling though. Remember?)
“Hey doc, how much is this going to cost me? $2,400?!!! (For a root canal, buildup and crown.) Are you insane? Just pull it.”
Now you are going to be missing a tooth, and may lose even more teeth as a result. Yet, when the doc first mentioned it, that cavity was only going to cost $150. How can it suddenly become sixteen times more expensive?!
“Rip-off artist. Seems you can’t trust anyone. . . .”
No matter how you slice it, tooth problems can be a pain. Among these, cracked teeth stand out for their confusing and erratic nature. A cracked tooth can be painful, annoying, and an exercise in frustration for patients and dentists alike. While there can be many factors that contribute to cracked teeth, the bottom line is that if your tooth is cracked the solution is often involved, potentially expensive — and, despite best efforts, tooth loss is still a very real possibility. Clicking on the picture below will take you to a compilation of questions and answers about cracked teeth. It covers a lot of ground, but if you think you may have a cracked tooth, it is worth reading so that you can know what to expect.
Consider this article a public service announcement. I really dislike it when patients lose their teeth unnecessarily. My practice philosophy is that if a person has a dental problem, the goal is to handle that difficulty first, but then empower the patient with the correct knowledge that will keep him out of trouble from there on out. Ideally, my hope is that most future visits to my office will only be for routine maintenance.
Unfortunately, and all too often, I encounter new patients with teeth that are so badly decayed there is little hope of salvage. Possibly just as frequently, I find these patients scheduling a checkup – usually after a long absence from dental care – who are surprised to learn that they have any cavities at all. Sometimes they will think they lost a filling when, in fact, a piece of their enamel has broken away.
Why are they surprised? The common denominator seems to be the idea that cavities are supposed to hurt.
Well, sometimes they do hurt. But most of the time – especially in the early stage – they don’t.
In fact, by the time a tooth does start to hurt you it’s usually pretty bad. More often than not, it is so bad that a dentist is evaluating whether it can be treated with endodontic (root canal) therapy or whether it needs to be extracted. A little understanding of basic dental anatomy is helpful here.
Take a look at the illustration below:
The outer layer of the tooth is comprised of enamel. This is the hardest substance in your body. It breaks up your food and is designed to last you a lifetime.
And now, here is the important part for you to understand: it doesn’t contain any nerves.
It is more than ninety-five percent mineral. Water and organic materials make up the balance. And because it doesn’t have nerves, it doesn’t have feeling. This is actually quite practical since it wouldn’t do to have pain every time you bit into something. On the other hand, it also means that it can be decayed without giving you a warning.
In fact, decay can also travel into the supporting layer – the dentin – and still not cause you pain. It usually has to travel pretty close to the inner layer that contains the blood vessels and nerves – the pulp – before you feel it. Of course, by then, the tooth has generally undergone considerable destruction.
Another factor that makes spotting decay difficult is the way it spreads. I have drawn two black triangles into the enamel above. Notice that the narrow point is on the outside of the enamel. The broader base faces the inside of the tooth. This is how decay usually travels. Sometimes, it will undermine the interior of the tooth while the outer, harder enamel still maintains its form . . . until it eventually crumbles because the underlying supporting dentin has been eaten away by decay.
Many cavities also form at the contact point between two teeth. These are areas that you simply cannot see. Even the dentist needs an x-ray to spot these cavities in most cases.
So what does all this really mean? Spotting decay is not always that easy. As dentists, we use visual examination, but we also rely on probes, x-rays, and even laser detection devices to locate cavities. Even then, it can be difficult to find cavities under existing fillings.
Don’t rely on pain to tell you if you have a cavity in your tooth. If you do, you can be assured that your treatment is likely to be more uncomfortable, expensive, and may even result in the loss of a tooth that could have been treated much more easily earlier in the game.
If you have a loved one, who still has their teeth and hasn’t seen a dentist in a while, have them read this article. You may be saving them from quite a bit of discomfort – not to mention time and money – if they catch potential problems before they are hopeless.
Some of you may be thinking, “No big deal. If it’s that bad, I’ll just pull it.” OK, sometimes that is necessary, but therein lies a lesson for another day.
My guess is that it is either because you are compelled to do so by law, or (if you live in the U.S.) you believe the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who claim that seat belts save about 13,000 lives a year, nationwide.
The few seconds it takes you to snap on your seat belt buckle reduces the chance of dying in a car crash by 45%, and of being injured by about half. Nevertheless, seat belts are not likely to play a big role in saving your life, because chances are you won’t find yourself in a serious automobile accident. Let’s face it, fortunately, most people never find themselves in that circumstance.
On the other hand, gum disease (either gingivitis or periodontal disease) affects up to 80 percent of the population.
In other articles, you may have heard that periodontal disease is the leading cause of tooth loss among adults. The shocking reality is that this is probably the least notable consequence of periodontal disease.
Periodontal disease is a significant risk factor for stroke, heart disease, certain respiratory problems, low birth-weight infants, and some forms of cancer.
While very few people will die in a car crash, a great deal more will die from a heart attack, stroke, or cancer. Addressing periodontal disease via preventive techniques can significantly reduce your chances of dying from any one of these afflictions.
If this simple logic is not enough to convince you of the need to brush after meals, floss daily and eat a healthy diet, it may help you to know that over the past few decades, there have been hundreds of peer-reviewed medical studies published in journals showing periodontal disease to be a risk factor for heart attacks.
While periodontal disease is certainly not the only factor in the occurrence of cardiovascular diseases or cancer, there is definitely a link. The modern thinking regarding the connection has to do with the long-term inflammatory nature of gum disease. In simple terms, periodontal disease is a bacterial infection of the gums and bone supporting the teeth. As with most any infection in the body, this leads to inflammation.
Often having no symptoms that are detectable by the patient, bacteria from periodontal disease can affect blood vessels on the walls of your heart. If you have gum disease, the bacteria can easily invade the blood stream through one of many open portals. Let’s face it, it is a relatively short trip from the mouth to the heart after all.
Bacteria in the blood may also stimulate liver production of C-reactive proteins and fibrinogen. Both these substances have been linked to heart attacks.
Persons who successfully treated their periodontal disease have also been shown to experience improved cholesterol levels and demonstrated lowered blood pressure. Most readers will recognize these as factors frequently associated with cardiovascular disease.
The bottom line: while we generally don’t hesitate to snap on a seat belt because it may save our lives, not enough of the population understand that oral health basics save more lives than buckling-up! Added benefits? Saving teeth (which leads to better digestion and less need for heartburn medications), fresher breath, and avoiding painful toothaches or complicated dental procedures — which also translates to more dollars in your pocket.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t get cavities, have gum problems, or ever lose a tooth. Perhaps, the world might not be ideal, even then, but at least we wouldn’t have those problems.
Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that many people do lose their teeth – either to tooth decay or periodontal disease – and then require tooth replacements. Despite the growing popularity and acceptance of dental implants as prosthetic tooth substitutes, removable dentures still constitute the most common solution to missing teeth.
If a person still has some natural teeth, they may get what we term a “removable partial denture.” If they have lost all of their teeth, typically they will get a full denture. A commonly observed problem, however, is that once the dentures are made, patients tend to wear them far beyond the point where the denture continues to function well. A little background regarding the problem with dentures may help clarify why this is so:
Some people think that if they get rid of all of their teeth and get dentures they will finally see an end to their dental problems. This is far from reality. Actually, what happens is that patients simply trade one set of dental problems for another. While many patients will tell you that they eat just fine with their dentures, it has probably been so long since they had their real teeth, they have forgotten what it is like to eat normally.
What are some of the disadvantages of wearing dentures?
You lose up to 50% of your biting force.
A full upper denture covers your palate and interferes with your ability to taste your food.
Dentures can move when you eat, speak, cough, or sneeze.
Food accumulates around your dentures after a meal.
Sore spots can develop when the hard denture rubs against your gums.
Patients with an active gag reflex may not be able to even wear a denture without feeling as though they will gag.
Multiple relines of the denture may be required as the shape of your mouth changes. This can happen as a result of gaining or losing weight, or as a result of bone shrinkage and aging.
Atrophy of the upper or lower jaws can make it impossible to develop suction with the denture.
How long do they last?
This is an interesting question, because it is not unusual to encounter patients who tell you their denture was made twenty or even thirty years ago. Believe me, at that point, they are seldom good-looking dentures! But it underscores something about denture wear that is not well understood.
Once a denture is made and, assuming it fits well at the time of delivery, most patients expect – and can experience – good retention and stability.
But the key point is – once made – the dentures don’t change. Yet your mouth can – and often does. New medications can also cause your mouth to become dry, leading to irritation and sore spots. Osteoporosis could lead to shrinkage of the jaw. Despite these changes, many patients attempt to make up for new problems with denture adhesives. Unfortunately, this can open the door to even more irritation, and denture creams containing zinc have even been linked to other health problems such as numbness, tingling and muscle weakness.
While relines can assist with these changes and correct the fit of your denture to improve retention, many patients would do well to consider re-making their dentures after about five years to seven years. In my experience, waiting too long beyond that time period can make the transition to a new denture more difficult.
200 Year-Old Denture
When the change is minimal, such as one might expect after about five years, the transition is generally quite easy. It also helps to have a spare denture for those “oops!” moments. Over the years, I have experienced patients dropping dentures into the sink while cleaning them, accidentally dropping them into garbage disposals, having dogs and cats chew them, and more. Patients will bite into hard objects and break a tooth, they take them out at night and sometimes sit on them, they get stepped on – and one, believe it or not, was even stolen! That was simply too strange a story to recount here.
If your denture is over five years old, talk to your dentist about whether it is time to reline or remake your denture. You will be glad you did.
Let’s face it: seeing a doctor – any sort of doctor – can be expensive. And dentists are no exception. But if a person’s diet and home care have been lacking, the cost of dental treatment can quickly sky-rocket. One of the problems with dental care has to do with the fact that many patients still suffer from the idea that if they don’t feel anything wrong with their teeth, then all is well.
Unfortunately, when it comes to teeth, most people miss the boat entirely with this concept. The reason is simple: the outer part of the tooth – the enamel – is mostly mineral and has no nerves. That means you can have a cavity and not know it. Several, actually. Most dentists will attest to the fact that many patients are shocked to learn they have any cavities at all.
The trouble is that by the time a cavity actually gets big enough to pose a problem, it’s a PROBLEM. For most people that trouble is spelled P-A-I-N.
It’s really no small wonder that so many individuals associate going to the dentist with toothaches. For those patients, it is the only time they will actually make an appointment. They go because they now know they have a cavity. Pain is a huge motivator. . . .
By the time a tooth hurts, though, the cavity is usually pretty close to the nerve. This means that if there is still enough tooth structure left to work with, the dentist may consider a root canal to remove the source of the pain – in other words – the nerve. Usually, this is not cheap. A root canal on a molar can cost over a thousand dollars when performed by a specialist. Then the patient has to go back to the dentist to have the tooth built up again (because so much tooth structure was lost to decay) and finally, the tooth may even need a crown. Lacking a blood supply and nerve thanks to the root canal, the tooth is now brittle and can break. Since your back teeth get a lot of pressure when you chew, failing to crown it may result in the tooth cracking and all that money you spent on the root canal goes out the window.
In a number of cases, because many people simply fear getting a root canal (not because they actually had one, but because they heard that a friend of a friend had a bad experience, and they never want to go through THAT), they opt to remove the tooth instead.
But now they have to replace the missing tooth or else their teeth will shift around and their bite goes awry. And fixing that new problem typically costs even more!
It can be frustrating.
Many people figure no one will see a missing back tooth, so why not pull it, since that is cheaper? At least they think so – until they notice their front teeth starting to form gaps, and find that food gets stuck all over the place whenever they eat. But then again, what if it’s a front tooth that needs to go?
You possibly think: “Wow, this is a problem, but I still really need to find something cheap.” OK, then. If you live in Philadelphia, you may Google “affordable Philadelphia dentist” or “cheap dentist.” A number of listings for dental implants appear, maybe some for “affordable cosmetic dentistry.” Wow, this isn’t sounding at all affordable!!! Wait! A couple of dental schools come up too. “Hmmm. Do I really want someone in their first year of dental clinic restoring my front tooth? It will be less expensive. But, then again . . . .”
The affordable dentist is someone who will understand your situation and can help you to find a workable solution for your circumstances. Many offices offer low-cost or interest-free programs that help you get the work you need today and then spread payments out over time. In some cases, it may be helpful to set up a lay-away program, especially if you have specific needs for which you have been given an estimate of treatment costs. In this manner you won’t end up spending your money on other less-essential items. Many offices will assess a minor fee to manage this plan, but it is usually quite small.
In the meantime, it is essential to keep yourself out of trouble with good preventive dental practices. Learn what diet has to do with your teeth and which home care habits are best. Remember, when it comes to teeth and gums, “no pain” most definitely does not always mean “no problems”.
Dr. Richard Walicki is a Philadelphia dentist practicing general and cosmetic dentistry. While we hope you find the information contained herein interesting and useful, this blog is for informational purposes and is not intended to diagnose any oral disease. Dental conditions should be evaluated by your dental health professional or a qualified specialist.