As we age we become more susceptible to dental diseases. A common but often initially unnoticed problem for seniors is root decay.
We’re all familiar with tooth decay in the crown, the visible tooth above the gum line. Bacteria feeding on leftover sugar in the mouth produce acid, which at high levels erodes the teeth’s protective enamel. This forms cavities and, if untreated, deeper infection within the tooth that could reach the bone via the root canals.
But decay can also directly attack a tooth’s roots below the gum line. Roots are made of dentin and covered by a very thin layer of mineralized tooth structure called cementum. Cementum, which is much softer than enamel, is often lost because of its thinness, thus exposing the root’s dentin. This can make the area more susceptible to decay than the enamel-covered crown. Normally, though, the roots also have the gums covering them as added protection against bacterial infection.
But gum recession (shrinkage), a common experience for people in their later years, can expose the root surfaces. As a result, the roots become much more susceptible to decay. And an ensuing infection could spread more quickly into the interior of the tooth than decay originating in the crown.
That’s why it’s important to remove the decayed material and fill the root cavity to prevent the infection’s spread. While similar to a crown filling, the treatment can be more difficult if the root cavity extends below the gum line. In this case, we may need to perform a surgical procedure to access the cavity.
There are other things we can do to help prevent root cavities or limit their damage. We can apply fluoride varnish to strengthen the teeth and provide extra protection against cavities, or prescribe a fluoride rinse for use at home. We can also keep an eye out and treat periodontal (gum) disease, the main cause for gum recession.
The most important thing, though, is what you do: brush and floss thoroughly each day to remove bacterial plaque and limit sugary or acidic foods in your diet. Preventing decay and treating cavities as soon as possible will help ensure you’ll keep your teeth healthy and functional all through your senior years.
Even though an implant is now as close to life-like as modern dentistry can produce, it won’t surpass the function of your own natural tooth. That’s not to say implants are an inferior choice—in fact, it’s often the best one if a tooth is beyond reasonable repair. But first, let’s consider saving your existing tooth.
We first need to know why your tooth is diseased—more than likely either from tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease. Although different, these infections both begin with bacteria and can eventually lead to tooth loss.
While your mouth is teeming with millions of harmless bacteria, a few strains that live in dental plaque (a thin biofilm on your teeth) can cause disease. As they proliferate—feeding mostly on leftover sugar—they produce acid, which can erode the protective enamel on teeth. This can create cavities, which must be cleared of decayed material and filled.
Sometimes, though, the decay spreads deep within the pulp and through the root canals putting the tooth in danger. We may be able to save it, though, with a root canal treatment. In this common procedure we access the pulp chamber and clean out all the diseased or dead tissue. We then fill the empty chamber and root canals with a gutta percha filling and then seal the tooth. We later cap the tooth with a crown to further protect it.
Dental plaque can also give rise to a gum infection that triggers chronic inflammation. The inflammation can cause the gums to weaken and detach from the teeth to form large, infection-filled voids called periodontal pockets. This could lead to bone deterioration, further loosening the tooth’s hold.
But we can effectively treat gum disease by removing the plaque, which is fueling the infection. We normally do this with special hand instruments, but may also need to use surgical measures for more advanced cases. After plaque removal the inflammation subsides, giving the tissues a chance to heal and strengthen. We may also need to provide further assistance to these tissues to regenerate through gum or bone grafting.
These efforts can be quite involved, but if successful they could give your tooth another lease on life. And that could be a much better outcome for your dental health.
If you would like more information on the best treatment choices for your 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 “Save a Tooth or Get an Implant?”
Along with the gums, your teeth’s roots help stabilize them. Without them your teeth couldn’t handle the normal biting forces you encounter every day. That’s why a rare condition called root resorption must be treated promptly: this gradual breakdown and dissolving of root structure could eventually cause you to lose your tooth.
Resorption is normal in primary (“baby”) teeth giving way for permanent teeth or sometimes during orthodontic treatment. But the form of resorption we’re referring to in permanent teeth isn’t normal, and is highly destructive.
The condition begins in most cases outside the tooth and works its way in, usually at the gum line around the cervical or “neck-like” region of the tooth (hence the term external cervical resorption or ECR). ECR produces pink spots on the teeth in its early stages: these are spots of weakened enamel filled with pink-colored cells that cause the actual damage. The cells create cavity-like areas that can continue to enlarge.
We don’t fully understand what causes ECR, but there seems to be links with excessive force during orthodontics, tooth trauma (especially to the gum ligaments), tooth grinding habits or internal bleaching procedures. However, most people with these problems don’t develop ECR, so the exact mechanism remains a bit of a mystery.
The good news, though, is that we can treat ECR effectively, provided we discover it before it inflicts too much damage. That’s why regular dental visits are important, coupled with your own observation of anything out of the ordinary and immediate dental follow-up.
If the affected area is relatively small, we may be able to remove the cells causing the damage and repair the area with a tooth-colored filling. If it appears the pulp (the tooth’s innermost layer) is involved, we may need to perform a root canal treatment to remove infected tissue and fill the empty space with a special filling. You may also need other procedures to reduce the chances of gum recession around the affected tooth.
Proactive dental care is your best insurance against losing a tooth to root resorption. So keep an eye on your teeth and see your dentist regularly to keep your teeth and gums healthy.
If you would like more information on the signs and treatments for root resorption, 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 “Root Resorption: An Unusual Phenomenon.”
Pregnancy is an exciting time in a woman’s life — but it can also generate a lot of questions about both the mother’s and the baby’s health. The realm of dental care is no exception.
Here are a few of the questions we frequently hear from expectant mothers, along with our answers.
Does the baby’s tooth calcium come from my teeth?
This question is frequently asked by mothers who may have had dental issues and are worried they’ll pass on these problems to their baby. Simply put, no — a baby developing in the womb derives minerals like calcium for their teeth and bones from the mother’s diet, not her teeth. What an expectant mother can do is be sure to eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in nutrients and minerals like calcium.
Am I at heightened risk for dental disease during pregnancy?
Pregnancy does cause significant increases in your body’s hormones, particularly estrogen. This can cause changes in the gum tissue’s blood vessels that may make you more susceptible to periodontal (gum) disease (commonly called “pregnancy gingivitis”). It’s also possible later in pregnancy to develop non-cancerous overgrowths of gum tissues called “pregnancy tumors.” The heightened risk for gum disease during pregnancy calls for increased vigilance in monitoring gum health.
What should I do to take care of my teeth?
It’s important to brush your teeth thoroughly twice a day with ADA-approved fluoridated toothpaste to remove plaque, a thin layer of bacteria and food remnants that adhere to teeth. You should also floss daily and consider using an anti-plaque/anti-gingivitis mouthrinse. And, of course, you should see us for regular office cleanings and checkups, or if you notice swollen, tender or bleeding gums, or other abnormalities.
Should I take prenatal fluoride supplements?
This sounds appealing as a way to give your baby a head start on strong tooth development. Studies on its effectiveness, however, remain slim and somewhat inconclusive — we simply don’t have enough data to make a recommendation. What does have a solid research record is the application of fluoride to teeth in young children just after they appear in the mouth — studies involving over a thousand teeth have shown 99% cavity-free results using topical fluoride applications with sealants.
If you would like more information on dental care during pregnancy, 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 “Expectant Mothers.”
One of the most effective techniques for saving decayed or injured teeth is the root canal treatment. Yet when many people hear they need it, they become nervous at the prospect.
Much of this stems from a common misunderstanding that undergoing a root canal is painful. It’s not — today’s anesthetics are quite effective in numbing pain during a procedure, and mild pain relievers like ibuprofen are usually sufficient to manage any discomfort afterwards.
In fact, a root canal treatment relieves pain caused by decay within a tooth. As decay progresses, it can enter the interior known as the pulp, which contains bundles of nerves and blood vessels. It attacks these nerves causing pain and infection. If the infection progresses through passageways known as root canals that are in the roots of the tooth, the pain can intensify. More important, the tooth is in danger of loss as the root and connective tissues that hold the tooth in place are injured from the spreading infection.
During a root canal treatment, we access the pulp by drilling a small access hole, usually in the biting surface or in the rear of a front tooth. Once we enter the pulp chamber we remove all the contaminated tissue. Once thoroughly cleansed, we fill the empty chamber and canals with a special filling (usually gutta percha) to prevent future infection. The access hole is then sealed and at a subsequent visit we strongly recommend placing a permanent crown to provide further protection from damage to the tooth.
Root canal treatments are quite common. All general dentists have been trained in endodontic treatment and can perform most types of procedures. More difficult cases (like a complex root canal network that may be hard to access) may require the services of an endodontist, a specialist in root canals. Endodontists use advanced techniques and specialized microscopic equipment to treat complicated situations.
It’s actually good news if we recommend you undergo a root canal treatment — it means your tooth has a good chance of survival once it’s disinfected and the decay is removed. But don’t delay: the sooner we can treat your tooth, the better your chances of a healthy outcome.
If you would like more information on root canal treatment, 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 “Common Concerns about Root Canal Treatment.”
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