If you see your dentist regularly, you know that the oral examination is among the first items on the agenda. After reviewing your updated medical history, your dentist will conduct a visual assessment of the inside of your mouth including all soft tissues like the tongue, floor of the mouth, roof of the mouth and gums. From there, your dentist will likely evaluate the lymph nodes around the jaw and neck and the muscles responsible for chewing. What exactly are all these checks for?
The routine examination provided by your dentist is intended to mark any changes for monitoring, or to uncover any immediate issues in the mouth prior to undergoing the cleaning portion of the appointment. Dentists are often the first in your medical team to diagnose and treat or refer to a medical doctor for treatment.
Oral Health Issues Your Dentist Can Diagnose
Oral cancers can often go unnoticed, as they can present as a minor sore and are sometimes painless. Your dentist will be looking for signs that there could be changes occurring in the tissues. Often, these changes present in the outer tissues on the lips, cheeks and tongue. Less often these changes can be present on the floor of the mouth or inside the tissues of the cheeks, gums and floor of the mouth. Red or white patches (or a combination of the two) will be noted and explored by your dentist as well as any small canker-sore-like ulcers that have gone at least two weeks without improvement. Surface changes on the soft tissues of the mouth, unusual bleeding or quickly loosened teeth may also be signs of a potential concern in the mouth. Oral cancers of the mouth or throat can also be indicated by hoarseness of the voice for an extended period of time.
Oral cancers can be dangerous; however, early intervention and treatment has produced a good success rate.
During the X-Ray portion of the dental exam, your dentist will produce radiographic images which tell the story of what’s happening inside the tissues, below the gums. Oral cysts of the maxilla (upper jaw structure) or the mandible (lower jaw structure) are the most common place for cysts to appear in the body. Cysts generally present as a self-inflating balloon containing fluid. Most cysts are benign, but some cysts cause bone resorption as they inflate, putting the structures of the teeth and jaw at risk.
If your dentist identifies a cyst in your gums, they will first evaluate the potential risk of leaving the cyst as it is. If the cyst is benign and it does not present any risk to the surrounding structures, you will likely be advised to leave the cyst as it is. If, however, your dentist determines that the cyst is presenting a risk to the structures of the mouth, removal or draining will be explored.
Bruxism, or unconscious clenching and grinding of the teeth at night, can often be missed as a sign of a potential problem if there is no sleeping partner who can attest to the sound of teeth grinding at night. The result can be a patient who suffers from frequent headaches, soreness in the face and ears, or difficult or painful chewing.
Your dentist is trained to recognize the signs of bruxism and its impact on the teeth and temporomandibular joints. Patients suffering the effects of clenching or grinding can present with gum recession, sensitive or cracked teeth and lost fillings. This results from the extreme forces that the jaw is exerting on thee teeth, ligaments, gums and bones while the patient is asleep.
In order to treat symptoms of bruxism, your dentist will likely suggest that you be fitted for a custom night guard. Night guard appliances come in various types, including a U-shaped dental arch that fits over the teeth of the entire upper or lower dental arch, or one that sits only on the front of the teeth. The intention of this night guard is to provide spacing between the upper and lower dental arches to prevent the teeth from coming together and wearing on each other.
Doing Your Part
The fact that issues such as cancer, cysts and bruxism can occur without us knowing is an important reminder to maintain a regular visitation schedule with our dentists and to adhere to recommended oral hygiene standards. Doing what we can at home in terms of regularly brushing and flossing our teeth between visits and eliminating lifestyle habits that put us at risk is the best way to limit the chances of an oral health issue arising. While we do what we can to stay healthy and well, it is still important to see our dentists for regular exams to ensure early diagnosis and intervention before the problem becomes advanced.