Understanding Periodontal Disease

***UPDATED: January 20, 2015*** A link between oral disease and heart health has been established for quite some time, but research has just found that chronic periodontitis sufferers need to be extra cautious. According to a recent Dentistry Today article, research has shown that chronic periodontitis can have an effect on the severity of a heart attack. Specifically, the extent of the chronic oral disease correlates to the size of the myocardial infarction based on levels of troponin and myoglobin. The research team analyzed 112 patients who suffered from acute myocardial infarction, putting them through numerous cardiological, biochemical and periodontal health checks. Researchers acknowledge that further studies will need to be completed in order to pinpoint the severity or mildness of specific episodes, but they believe that chronic periodontitis should be viewed as a predictor of heart attacks, and should be added to risk stratification scores. Continue reading for more information on periodontitis.

In my years of researching and writing about oral health issues, I’ve come across countless pieces about the growing problem of oral disease around the world.  Many focus on the importance of avoiding periodontal disease by following a regular dental hygiene routine, including visiting your dentist at least once a year, if not twice.  They may talk about the symptoms or treatment of the disease, but few really get into the very basics.  I think that it can be really difficult to avoid something if you’re not even sure what it is you’re trying to steer clear of. So, I’ve decided to get back to the basics. For those who aren’t sure, here’s what you need to know about periodontal disease.

The mouth is full of bacteria, some good and some not so good. When the balance of bacteria is disturbed, the result may be gingivitis, also called gum disease or periodontal disease. If left untreated, this could result in the destruction of the tissues that support your teeth, eventually leading to tooth loss, and some would argue, worse. When the bacteria in plaque causes inflammation in the gums, gingivitis may be in its early onset. At this point, teeth are still “safe” and no irreversible damage has typically occurred.  If at this stage, the symptoms are ignored and no treatment is sought, it can advance to periodontitis, when the inner layer of the gum and bone pull away from the teeth and form pockets. These pockets can collect debris and are easily infected. Toxins then start to break down the bone and connective tissue that hold your teeth in place, eventually resulting in tooth loss.

There are many reasons why the bacteria in the mouth can become unbalanced. While plaque buildup is the primary cause of gum disease, there are several other factors that may contribute to the development of periodontal disease.  They include (but are not limited to):

  • Hormonal changes: such as those associated with pregnancy, puberty, menopause, menstruation, etc.

  • Illness: Diseases such as cancer or HIV can interfere with the immune system, influencing the body’s ability to fight off “bad” bacteria. Some medications also are associated with oral health problems due to causing dry mouth, or lack of saliva.

  • Bad habits: including smoking and drinking alcohol

  • Family history: There is evidence that predisposition to gum disease can be passed on through generations.

The tricky thing about gum disease is that it can progress with little or no warning signs. Some may experience bleeding gums, red or swollen gums, persistent bad breath, or even loose or shifting teeth. The best way to either prevent periodontal disease or catch it early enough to reverse any damage is by visiting the dentist regularly. During your regular exam, your dentist will typically check for gum bleeding, firmness and pocket depth, all of which can indicate a problem. If an issue arises, a treatment plan will be created and can range from nonsurgical therapies to control bacterial growth to surgery to restore supportive tissue. Treatment will depend on the severity of the disease. In recent years, researchers have discovered a strong link between gum disease and other very serious health conditions, such as heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and cancer. For some, the threat of losing a tooth apparently isn’t reason enough to visit their dentist, but through education and understanding the significance of gum disease in overall health, perhaps they may decide the trip is worth it.

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