The ongoing opioid addiction epidemic has brought together government, law enforcement and healthcare to find solutions. The focus among doctors and dentists has been on finding ways to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions.
Opioids (or narcotics) have been a prominent part of pain management in healthcare for decades. Drugs like morphine, oxycodone or fentanyl can relieve moderate to extreme pain and make recovery after illness or procedures much easier. Providers like doctors and dentists have relied heavily on them, writing nearly 260 million narcotic prescriptions a year as late as 2012.
But although effective when used properly, narcotics are also addictive. While the bulk of overall drug addiction stems from illegal narcotics like heroin, prescription drugs also account for much of the problem: In 2015, for example, 2 million Americans had an addiction that began with an opioid prescription.
The current crisis has led to horrific consequences as annual overdose deaths now surpass the peak year of highway accident deaths (just over 54,000 in 1972). This has led to a concerted effort by doctors and dentists to develop other approaches to pain management without narcotics.
One that’s gained recent momentum in dentistry involves the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs like acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin work by dilating blood vessels, which reduces painful inflammation. They’re available over the counter, although stronger doses require a prescription.
NSAIDs are effective for mild to moderate pain, but without the addictive properties of narcotics. There are some adverse health consequences if taken long-term, but limited use for pain or during post-procedure recovery is safe.
Many dentists are recommending NSAIDs for first-line pain management after most dental procedures. Narcotics may still be prescribed, but in a limited and controlled fashion. As part of this new approach, dentists typically combine ibuprofen and acetaminophen: Studies have shown the two work together better at reducing pain than either one individually.
Still, many aren’t eager to move away from the proven effectiveness of narcotics to primarily NSAIDs. But as these non-addictive drugs continue to prove their effectiveness, there’s hope the use of addictive opioids will continue to decrease.
Over the last century and a half millions of people have had a tooth cavity filled with “silver” amalgam. Perhaps you’re one of them. The use of this effective and durable filling has declined in recent years, but only because of the development of more attractive tooth-colored materials.
At the same time there’s another issue that’s been brewing in recent years about this otherwise dependable metal alloy: the inclusion of mercury in amalgam, about half of its starting mixture. Various studies have shown mercury exposure can have a cumulative toxic effect on humans. As a result, you may already be heeding warnings to limit certain seafood in your diet.
So, should you be equally concerned about amalgam fillings — even going so far as to have any existing ones removed?
Before taking such a drastic step, let’s look at the facts. To begin with, not all forms of mercury are equally toxic. The form causing the most concern is called methylmercury, a compound formed when mercury released in the environment combines with organic molecules. This is the form certain large fish like salmon and tuna ingest, which we then ingest when we eat them. Methylmercury can accumulate in the body’s tissues where at high levels it can damage various organ systems.
Dental amalgam, on the other hand, uses elemental mercury. Dentists take it in liquid form and mix it with a powder of other metals like silver, tin and copper to create a pliable paste. After it’s placed in a prepared cavity, the amalgam hardens into a compound in which the mercury interlaces with the other metals and becomes “trapped.”
Although over time the filling may emit trace amounts of mercury vapor, it’s well below harmful levels. You’re more likely to encounter “un-trapped” mercury in your diet than from a dental filling. And scores of studies over amalgam’s 150-year history have produced no demonstrable ill effects due to mercury.
Although it now competes with more attractive materials, amalgam still fills (no pun intended) a necessary role. Dentists frequently use amalgam in less visible back teeth, which encounter higher chewing pressures than front teeth. So, if you already have an amalgam filling or we recommend one to you, relax — you’re really in no danger of mercury poisoning.
After your son or daughter's dental exam, you expect to hear about cavities, poor bites or other dental problems. But your dentist might suggest a different kind of problem you didn't expect—an eating disorder.
It's not a fluke occurrence—a dental exam is a common way bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa come to light. That's because the teeth are often damaged by the behaviors of a patient with an eating disorder.
Most of this damage occurs because of purging, the practice of induced vomiting after eating. During vomiting stomach acid can enter the mouth and "wash" against the back of the teeth. After repeated episodes, the acid dissolves the mineral content of tooth enamel and causes it to erode. There's also a tell-tale pattern with eating disorders: because the tongue partially shields the back of the lower teeth while purging, the lower teeth may show less enamel erosion than the upper.
Hygiene practices, both negligent and too aggressive, can accelerate erosion. Anorexics often neglect basic grooming and hygiene like brushing and flossing, which increases the likelihood of dental disease. Bulimia patients, on the other hand, can be fastidious about their hygiene. They're more likely to brush immediately after purging, which can cause tiny bits of the enamel immediately softened by the acid wash to slough off.
In dealing with a family member's eating disorder, you should consider both a short and long-term approach to protect their dental health. In the sort-term the goal is to treat the current damage and minimize the extent of any future harm. In that regard, encourage them to rinse with water (mixed optionally with baking soda to help neutralize acid) after purging, and wait an hour before brushing. This will give saliva in the mouth a chance to fully neutralize any remaining acid. Your dentist may also recommend a sodium fluoride mouth rinse to help strengthen their tooth enamel.
For the long-term, your goal should be to help your loved one overcome this potentially life-threatening condition through counseling and therapy. To find out more about treatment resources near you, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website at nationaleatingdisorders.org. Taking steps to treat an eating disorder could save not only your loved one's dental health, but also their life.
If you would like more information on eating disorders and dental health, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Bulimia, Anorexia & Oral Health.”
As the host of America's Funniest Home Videos on ABC TV, Alfonso Ribeiro has witnessed plenty of unintentional physical comedy…or, as he puts it in an interview with Dear Doctor–Dentistry & Oral Health magazine, "When people do stuff and you're like, 'Dude, you just hurt yourself for no reason!'" So when he had his own dental dilemma, Alfonso was determined not to let it turn onto an "epic fail."
The television personality was in his thirties when a painful tooth infection flared up. Instead of ignoring the problem, he took care of it by visiting his dentist, who recommended a root canal procedure. "It's not like you wake up and go, 'Yay, I'm going to have my root canal today!'" he joked. "But once it's done, you couldn't be happier because the pain is gone and you're just smiling because you're no longer in pain!"
Alfonso's experience echoes that of many other people. The root canal procedure is designed to save an infected tooth that otherwise would probably be lost. The infection may start when harmful bacteria from the mouth create a small hole (called a cavity) in the tooth's surface. If left untreated, the decay bacteria continue to eat away at the tooth's structure. Eventually, they can reach the soft pulp tissue, which extends through branching spaces deep inside the tooth called root canals.
Once infection gets a foothold there, it's time for root canal treatment! In this procedure, the area is first numbed; next, a small hole is made in the tooth to give access to the pulp, which contains nerves and blood vessels. The diseased tissue is then carefully removed with tiny instruments, and the canals are disinfected to prevent bacteria from spreading. Finally, the tooth is sealed up to prevent re-infection. Following treatment, a crown (cap) is usually required to restore the tooth's full function and appearance.
Root canal treatment sometimes gets a bad rap from people who are unfamiliar with it, or have come across misinformation on the internet. The truth is, a root canal doesn't cause pain: It relieves pain! The alternatives—having the tooth pulled or leaving the infection untreated—are often much worse.
Having a tooth extracted and replaced can be costly and time consuming…yet a missing tooth that isn't replaced can cause problems for your oral health, nutrition and self-esteem. And an untreated infection doesn't just go away on its own—it continues to smolder in your body, potentially causing serious problems. So if you need a root canal, don't delay!
If you would like additional information on root canal treatment, please contact us or schedule a consultation. You can learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “A Step-By-Step Guide to Root Canal Treatment” and “Root Canal Treatment: What You Need to Know.”
A loose primary (“baby”) tooth is often a cause for celebration. A loose permanent tooth, however, is a cause for concern. A permanent tooth shouldn't even wiggle.
If you have a loose tooth, it's likely you have a deeper dental problem. Here are the top underlying causes for loose teeth.
Gum disease. Teeth are held in place by an elastic tissue called the periodontal ligament. But advanced periodontal (gum) disease, a bacterial infection usually caused by film buildup on teeth called dental plaque, can damage the ligament and cause it to detach. If it's not treated, it could lead to tooth loss.
Bite-related trauma. A normal bite helps balance out the forces generated when we chew so they don't damage the teeth. But if a misaligned tooth protrudes higher from the jaw, the opposing tooth will likely create more downward pressure on it while chewing. This can stress the tooth's supporting ligament to the point of looseness.
Self-inflicted trauma. While they may be trendy, tongue jewelry can cause dental damage. A wearer who clicks the “barbell” of a tongue stud against their teeth could be creating conditions conducive for gum damage and bone loss, which can cause tooth looseness. Similarly, taking orthodontics into your own hands could also damage your teeth, especially if you have undiagnosed gum disease.
Genetics. Although you can't prevent it, the type of resistance or susceptibility you inherited from your parents (as well as your dental anatomy) can cause you dental problems. Thinner gum tissues, especially around the roots, can make you more susceptible to gum disease or dental trauma, which in turn could contribute to tooth looseness.
There are things you can do to lessen your chance of loose teeth. Brush and floss every day to remove disease-causing bacterial plaque and see a dentist regularly for cleanings to reduce your risk of gum disease. If you have any misaligned teeth, consult with an orthodontist about possible treatment. And avoid oral jewelry and DIY orthodontics.
If you do notice a loose tooth, see us as soon as possible. We'll need to diagnose the underlying cause and create a treatment plan for it. We may also need to splint the tooth to its neighbors to stabilize it and reduce your risk of losing it permanently.
If you would like more information on tooth mobility, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “When Permanent Teeth Become Loose.”
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