Dentists are not just checking for cavities when they inspect your mouth. Gums are a major indicator of the condition of your body’s overall health. Redness and puffiness in the gums or changes to the tongue or the palate can indicate a compromised immune system where something else is going on in your body. Dentists will encourage patients to see their medical doctor to get checked out.
Why do they say that your mouth is a window to your overall health?
Dr. Darren McKeever: Well surprisingly, if you know what you’re looking for, you may not be able to exactly diagnose an overall body ailment, but you can detect the fact that the overall health of the body is under some kind of pressure or stress.
My story that I tell people about this, every once in a while is that, actually a good friend of mine, I actually was able to know that his wife was pregnant before he did, from the condition of her gums. The gums are a major indicator of overall health. If they are not healthy, there is usually something going on. If there is something serious going on, there are actually very specific telltale’s that we look for, leukemia might be one of those, people who have diabetes. But also, if you’re just under stress, there are things that show up in the mouth.
Not only will the gums be a little more red and inflamed, gingivitis will be more common, because your immune system is depleted when you’re under stress; but you may see cracking in the teeth, chipping in the teeth, wear on the teeth from the stress, so these are all things that we look for, and that is why we can kind of tell how healthy a patient is overall, by looking in their mouth.
And I know you just touched on this a little, but what symptoms might appear in your mouth that may indicate other health issues in your body?
Dr. Darren McKeever: Well the biggest symptom we look for is inflammation – redness, puffiness in the gums. The gums are a lot quicker to give away something’s wrong with the overall body condition than anything else. The teeth, because they are very hard, they are very rigid, they are designed to wear slowly, they’re a little bit slower to give up the information that we might be looking for, but when we see changes in the gum, changes in the palate, changes in the tongue, those are times to question, “Something’s not quite right here, what’s going on?” Maybe even ask, “When is the last time you saw your physician for a check-up?”
Is there a correlation between gum disease and heart disease?
Dr. Darren McKeever: There is an absolute direct correlation between gum disease and heart disease. Your gums are really an extension of your body’s skin. They are a barrier to the outside world. Basically how that works is, I mean, yes, you’re going to swallow food, food’s going to go in your mouth, it’s going to go into your stomach, it’s going to go through the alimentary canal and it’s going to be disposed of. It may travel within your body, but it’s never really inside the body in terms of the bloodstream.
When the gums aren’t healthy, it’s a two way street, blood can come out of the gums, but bacteria can go into the bloodstream through that unhealthy area, and where is it going to go? It’s going to get into the blood vascular system, it’s going to go for a ride throughout your body. That’s going to stimulate your immune system to attack it and deplete your immune system, then these little micro meteorites of bacteria are going to cause hardening of the arteries; they may cause valvular damage. It is very, very common that we hear, in my office, we’ll get a report from a cardiothoracic surgeon asking us to clear a patient for a major heart surgery before they will touch that patient, because they know, if the mouth is prone to infection, the heart surgery may not be adequate to save the patient.
I’ve actually held people up from having heart surgery, because we just couldn’t get their gums into shape quick enough, and that’s a problem, because you really want your ticker to be doing its job quickly, but the heart surgeons know, if the mouth isn’t healthy, all their work is going to go down the tubes very quickly.
During a routine dental check-up, what is the dentist looking for besides cavities?
Dr. Darren McKeever: Well there’s really a lot of things. We often look for the gums, as a routine, if there’s anything red, well, not often, all the time. The one thing though, and the most dangerous thing that we’re looking for in the mouth, is oral cancer. Oral cancer is usually within the top five cancers in the United States, if you find it early enough it is extremely curable. If you find it later, it is extremely difficult, so we’re always looking for that.
We’re also looking for changes in the patient’s bite; the mouth is not a static system that’s always the same. It’s not like a hunk of concrete that was poured 20 or 30 years ago and all of a sudden it’s going to be the same for 20 or 30 years. The mouth changes over time, it changes as your body changes over time. So, we’re looking for those things, we’re looking for changes in the bite, cracking, we’re looking for bone level changes that might indicate some underlying health issues. But we are not just looking for cavities; people think that’s all we do, and sometimes, I’ll admit, we’re a little remiss. We’re not saying, “I’m looking for this, I’m looking for this, I’m looking for this.” We’re just looking though, we’re always looking, because that’s our job.
If you are interested in speaking with Dr. Darren McKeever, visit www.mckeeverdentalcare.com or call 973-839-8180 to schedule an appointment.
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