During this year's baseball spring training, Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton got into a row with a steak dinner—and the beefsteak got the better of it. During his meal, the Gold Glove winner cracked a tooth.
Fortunately, he didn't lose it. Buxton's dentist rescued the tooth with a dental procedure that's been around for over a century—a root canal treatment. The dependable root canal is responsible for saving millions of teeth each year.
Dentists turn to root canal treatments for a number of reasons: a permanent tooth's roots are dissolving (a condition called resorption); chronic inflammation of the innermost tooth pulp due to repeated fillings; or a fractured or cracked tooth, like Buxton's, in which the pulp becomes exposed to bacteria.
One of the biggest reasons, though, is advanced tooth decay. Triggered by acid, a by-product of bacteria, a tooth's enamel softens and erodes, allowing decay into the underlying dentin. In its initial stages, we can often treat decay with a filling. But if the decay continues to advance, it can infect the pulp and root canals and eventually reach the bone.
Decay of this magnitude seriously jeopardizes a tooth's survival. But we can still stop it before that point with a root canal. The basic procedure is fairly straightforward. We begin first by drilling a small hole into the tooth to access the inner pulp and root canals. Using special instruments, we then remove all of the infected tissue within the tooth.
After disinfecting the now empty spaces and reshaping the root canals, we fill the tooth with a rubber-like substance called gutta percha. This, along with filling the access hole, seals the tooth's interior from future infection. In most cases, we'll return sometime later and bond a life-like crown to the tooth (as Buxton's dentist did for him) for added protection and support.
You would think such a procedure would get its own ticker tape parade. Unfortunately, there's a cultural apprehension that root canals are painful. But here's the truth—because your tooth and surrounding gums are numbed by local anesthesia, a root canal procedure doesn't hurt. Actually, if your tooth has been throbbing from tooth decay's attack on its nerves, a root canal treatment will alleviate that pain.
After some time on the disabled list, Buxton was back in the lineup in time to hit his longest homer to date at 456 feet on the Twins' Opening Day. You may not have that kind of moment after a root canal, but repairing a bothersome tooth with this important procedure will certainly get you back on your feet again.
If you would like more information about root canal therapy, please contact us or schedule a consultation. To learn more, read the Dear Doctor magazine article “A Step-By-Step Guide to Root Canal Treatment.”
Although we've known for some time how tooth decay forms, it's still prevalent across the population—even more so than cancer or heart disease. Along with gum disease, it's a leading cause of tooth loss.
Fortunately, our knowledge about tooth decay has grown considerably, to the point that we now recognize a number of risk factors that make it more likely a person will develop this disease. By first identifying them in individual patients, we can take steps to address them specifically to reduce the chances of this destructive disease.
Genetics. Researchers have identified around 40 to 50 genes that can influence cavity development. The best way to assess your genetic risk is through family history—if numerous close family members contend with tooth decay, your risk may be high. If so, it's important to be extra vigilant with addressing other areas over which you have more control.
Saliva. Cavities are directly caused by oral acid, a byproduct of bacteria, that can erode tooth enamel over prolonged contact. This is minimized, though, through a normal saliva flow that neutralizes acid and helps remineralize enamel. But poor saliva production can slow acid neutralization. You can improve your saliva flow by drinking more water, changing medications or using saliva-boosting products.
Oral hygiene. You can reduce bacteria (and thus acid) by removing their "room and board"—dental plaque. This accumulating film of food particles harbors the bacteria that feed on it. Daily brushing and flossing, accompanied by regular dental cleanings, effectively removes dental plaque, which in turn lowers the levels of oral bacteria and acid.
Dental-friendly diet. Even if you diligently address the previous risk factors, your diet may fight against your efforts. Diets high in processed and refined foods, especially sugar, provide abundant food sources for bacteria. On the other hand, a diet primarily of whole foods rich in vitamins (especially D) and minerals like calcium and phosphorous strengthen teeth against decay.
Preventing tooth decay isn't a "one-size-fits-all" approach. By identifying your own particular risk, we can craft a care strategy that can be your best defense against this destructive dental disease.
Most of what goes on inside our mouths—good or bad—is fairly predictable. But every now and then, people encounter something out of the ordinary. A good example is lichen planus.
Lichen planus are rare skin lesions that can occur on various parts of the skin, including inside the mouth. The name comes from their lacy appearance, which resembles a fungus that grows on rocks or trees called lichen.
Being similar in appearance, though, is all that lichen planus has in common with its fungal namesake. It's believed that the sores are caused by a reaction of the immune system mistaking some of the body's cells as foreign.
But don't let the exotic sounding name alarm you—true lichen planus is considered a benign mouth sore. You may not even realize you have it until your dentist notices and points it out. But the lesions can sometimes cause mild pain or burning, especially if they occur near the gums or if you indulge in spicy or acidic foods.
As we said, these lesions aren't considered dangerous. But in a small number of cases, oral cancer was found to develop later. It's unclear whether the lesions were related to the cancer, or if what were diagnosed as lichen planus lesions were actually pre-cancerous cells mimicking the appearance of the benign sore.
In any event, your dentist will probably continue to monitor the lesions and possibly conduct regular oral cancer screenings to be on the safe side. You may also want to stop using tobacco or alcohol products to further decrease your risk of oral cancer.
As to managing lichen planus, it starts with a daily habit of brushing and flossing. You'll also want to avoid spicy or acidic foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers or caffeinated drinks, especially during flareups. If the lesions are causing discomfort, your dentist may also prescribe a topical steroid to apply to them.
Since it's quite possible you won't know if you have lichen planus (as well as other types of mouth sores) unless your dentist observes them, you should keep up regular dental visits. Having your dentist check your entire mouth, not just your teeth and gums, will help both of you stay on top of your oral health.
If you would like more information on mouth sores, 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 “Lichen Planus.”
Finding out you have a cavity isn't the best of news. But finding out it's a root cavity is even worse: if not treated, the decay can spread more rapidly than a cavity occurring in the tooth's crown surfaces.
Our teeth are basically composed of two parts: the crown, the visible tooth above the gum line, and the roots, the hidden portion beneath the gums. The root in turn fits into a bony socket within the jaw to help hold the tooth in place (along with attached gum ligaments).
A tooth crown is covered by an ultra-hard layer of enamel, which ordinarily protects it from harmful bacteria. But when acid produced by bacteria comes into prolonged contact with enamel, it can soften and erode its mineral content and lead to a cavity.
In contrast to enamel, the roots have a thin layer of material called cementum. Although it offers some protection, it's not at the same performance level as enamel. But roots are also normally covered by the gums, which rounds out their protection.
But what happens when the gums shrink back or recede? This often occurs with gum disease and is more prevalent in older people (and why root cavities are also more common among seniors). The exposed area of the roots with only cementum standing in the way of bacteria and acid becomes more susceptible to cavity formation.
Root cavities can be treated in much the same way as those that occur in the crown. We first remove any decayed tooth structure with a drill and then place a filling. But there's also a scenario in which the cavity is below the gum line: In that case, we may need to gain access to the cavity surgically through the gums.
If you have exposed root areas, we can also treat these with fluoride to strengthen the area against cavity formation. And, as always, prevention is the best treatment: maintain a daily schedule of brushing and flossing and regular dental cleanings to remove bacterial plaque.
Because decay can spread within a tooth, dealing with a root cavity should be done as promptly as possible. But if we diagnose and initiate treatment early, your chances of a good outcome are high.
If you would like more information on treating root cavities and other forms of tooth decay, 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 Cavities.”
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs wrapped up the NFL regular season in January, setting single-season records in both catches and receiving yards. The Bills handily beat the Miami Dolphins, earning themselves the second seed in the AFC playoffs, and Diggs certainly did his part, making 7 catches for 76 yards. But what set the internet ablaze was not Diggs' accomplishments on the field but rather what the camera caught him doing on the sidelines—flossing his teeth!
The Twitterverse erupted with Bills fans poking fun at Diggs. But Diggs is not ashamed of his good oral hygiene habits, and CBS play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan expressed his support with “Dental hygiene is something to take note of, kids! There's never a bad place to floss” and “When you lead the NFL in catches and yards, you can floss anytime you want.”
We like to think so. There's an old joke among dentists:
Q. Which teeth do you need to floss?
A. Only the ones you want to keep.
Although this sounds humorous, it is borne out in research. Of note, a 2017 study showed that people who floss have a lower risk of tooth loss over periods of 5 years and 10 years, and a 2020 study found that older adults who flossed lost an average of 1 tooth in 5 years, while those who don't lost around 4 teeth in the same time period.
We in the dental profession stress the importance of flossing as a daily habit—and Stefon Diggs would likely agree—yet fewer than 1 in 3 Americans floss every day. The 2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, revealed that only 30% of Americans floss every day, while 37% floss less than every day and 32% never floss.
The biggest enemy on the football field may be the opposing team, but the biggest enemy to your oral health is plaque, a sticky film of bacteria and food debris that builds up on tooth surfaces. Plaque can cause tooth decay and gum disease, the number one cause of tooth loss among adults. Flossing is necessary to remove plaque from between teeth and around the gums where a toothbrush can't reach. If not removed, plaque hardens into tartar, which can only be removed by the specialized tools used in the dental office. Regular professional dental cleanings are also needed to get at those hard-to-reach spots you may have missed.
If Diggs can find time to floss during a major NFL game, the rest of us can certainly find a couple minutes a day to do it. While we might not recommend Diggs' technique of flossing from one side of the mouth to the other, we commend his enthusiasm and commitment to keeping his teeth and gums healthy. Along with good dental hygiene at home—or on the sidelines if you are Stefon Diggs—regular professional dental cleanings and checkups play a key role in maintaining a healthy smile for life.
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