Gum Disease In-Depth


Gum disease is extremely common, with nearly 65 million Americans having some degree of this highly dangerous condition. Despite being so prevalent, gum disease is quite misunderstood. Not only do many people not even realize that they have it, but they also are very careless and glib about it. The fact is, gum disease isn’t just some annoying condition that can cause bleeding when you brush or floss. Instead, it’s a highly complex infection that starts in your mouth and can quickly spread, causing severe infection, tooth loss, and other complications such as heart attack, stroke, cancer, and even death. We here at Platte Valley Dental Care want to stress how important it is to take good care of your teeth to help prevent gum disease and the potentially lethal complications that can come with it.

What, Exactly, is Gum Disease?

Gum disease has many names, such as periodontal disease (which is simply another name for gum disease and is interchangeable), periodontitis, and gingivitis. Gingivitis is an earlier stage of this disease, while periodontitis is a more advanced and severe form of gum disease.

Gum disease is caused by a variety of factors, such as genetics or chronic illness, but the primary cause of gum disease is poor oral hygiene. If you use tobacco products, such as cigarettes or chewing tobacco, your risk of gum disease is greatly increased. Your mouth is a teeming hotbed of bacteria, and when you fail to properly take care of your teeth, that bacteria can build up on your teeth in a sticky residue known as plaque. The bacteria in plaque accumulate along your teeth and gumline, and if you don’t remove it, they will give off toxins that can start to attack your tissue. If left unchecked, it will continue to build up indefinitely. Over time, it will harden and become tartar (calculus) that harbors even more bacteria.

Over time, the toxins attacking your teeth and gums will lead to the first symptoms of gum disease. This condition is known as gingivitis, which is recognizable by its negative effects on your teeth and gums. The first clues that you have gingivitis aren't necessarily pain, either. Most of the time, gingivitis is entirely painless at first, making it a silent disease. However, just because it doesn’t hurt doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful. Diabetes doesn’t hurt at first, either, but can just as quickly take your life.

Gingivitis shows up as bleeding when you brush or floss your teeth. It can also cause red and swollen gums as well as a receding gumline. You may start to notice that you have bad breath (halitosis) and your gums will start to recede. As the disease progresses, you may finally start to notice the first signs of tenderness.

If we catch your gum disease while it’s still gingivitis, we can still cure it. However, if it progresses any further, there is no known cure for gum disease. Instead, we’ll have to focus on managing it like any other chronic disease. Gingivitis can be cured by implementing a good oral hygiene routine. This includes taking time to brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes each time you brush. Always use a soft-bristled toothbrush to brush your teeth, as a harder one can start to erode at your dental enamel. Brush your teeth at a 45-degree angle toward your gums, using a gentle back-and-forth motion.

After you brush your teeth, you must use dental floss to pick up any remaining trapped food particles or plaque that brushing may have missed. You need to floss at least once per day to ensure you’re taking good care of both your teeth and gums. Proper flossing starts with using an 18-inch length of dental floss and, using a c-shape around your teeth, getting up under your gums. Use a fresh section of floss per tooth to make sure you don’t spread and transfer bacteria to a different tooth. You can finish your routine with antibacterial mouthwash, but don’t try to use mouthwash as a replacement for brushing and flossing. Instead, consider it as a supplement that can help kill any remaining bacteria in your mouth.

How is Gum Disease Diagnosed?

If you have ever had a dental exam at our office and heard us calling out numbers, then you already know one of our key diagnostic measures for gum disease. These numbers are associated with the depth of your periodontal pockets.

Periodontal pockets form when the calculus from tartar builds up and isn’t removed. Over time, it can be quite difficult to remove it at home. We would need to remove it in our office using a scaling tool. The deeper the gum pocket, the worse your gum disease is. Normal, healthy gums are usually 3 millimeters or less, but severe gum pockets can be greater than 10 millimeters deep.

During your dental exam, we’ll not only check your periodontal pockets, but we’ll also fully examine your mouth for any signs of infection or inflammation. We’ll go over your chart carefully to see if you are at elevated risk for gum disease. Finally, we may decide to take x-rays to get a better idea of your oral health. This can tell us if you have any tooth decay or even bone loss.

How Can I Treat My Gum Disease?

If your gum disease becomes periodontitis, we can treat it in our office to help reduce the severity of the symptoms and halt the progression of the disease. We may try to treat the active infection with antibiotics or try either surgical or nonsurgical methods to stop it.

One of the first things we may try to do to help stop your gum disease is something called scaling and root planing. This procedure, also known as deep cleaning, removes all of the built-up calculus around your teeth. This is a two-step process and starts with the scaling, which removes all of the tartar from your teeth and below your gumline. Next, we’ll perform the root planing. This smooths down the surface of your tooth, removing any bacteria and roughness that could prevent your gums from attaching successfully to your tooth and tooth root. Once your teeth are clean and smooth, your gums can start to reattach to them and start the healing process.

If you are not a good candidate for scaling and root planing, we may have to perform flap surgery (also known as pocket reduction surgery) on you. This is similar to a scaling and root planing but requires us to make an incision in your gums to reveal areas of tartar buildup. Similar to the scaling and root planing, we will clean your tooth thoroughly before placing the gums back in place. We will place sutures to help the site heal. The goal of a flap surgery is to reduce the size of your dental pocket and encourage your gums to heal back around your teeth.

We may also advise gum grafts if your gum recession is severe. This is a fairly straightforward procedure and involves placing donor tissue over the areas of reduced gums. The donor site is usually from the roof of your mouth or your soft palate. As the donor tissue heals over the area of receding gums, your pockets and recession should start to heal, and your teeth and roots are given a second chance of remaining in your mouth.

For severe gum disease, we may have to perform a bone graft to restore lost bone tissue in your jawbone. Again, we do have to use donor tissue to perform this procedure. We can either get it from another location on your body, or we can source it from somewhere else. Donor tissue often comes from animals or cadavers, but rest assured that all donor tissue is sterilized before being placed. You can be confident that this is a very safe and routine procedure and has a good prognosis. Your body will start to grow new bone once the donor tissue starts to heal over the existing bone.

What Else Can I Do to Prevent Gum Disease?

Healthy teeth and gums start with a healthy lifestyle. If you smoke or use tobacco products, stop immediately. Not only can they cause tooth loss and gum disease, but they can also hurt you in other ways such as causing cancer, emphysema, and can kill you.

Avoid overly acidic foods such as coffee and wine. Stay away from soft drinks, too, because they can cause your enamel to start to erode. Citrus foods, while high in beneficial Vitamin C, can also erode your teeth. If you do partake in these foods, follow them with a glass of water, then wait a half hour before you brush your teeth. If you brush too soon, you may wind up rubbing more acid directly into your teeth, making them worse. If you have untreated acid reflux, schedule an appointment with us to help you address it. Acid reflux can cause stomach acid to rise in your throat and your back teeth may be at higher risk of damage from these acids. When you do brush your teeth, use toothpaste with fluoride in it. Most drinking water does have it, and fluoride can help re-mineralize your teeth and prevent tooth decay.

Try to eat a healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, and dairy. Apples, for instance, may not only keep the doctor away, but they can also keep tooth decay away! Carrots and celery can also keep cavities at bay. Not only are apples, carrots, and celery full of vitamins and minerals, they can also polish your teeth to help keep them clean. Leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, and even romaine lettuce and benefit your teeth. They’re packed to the brim with vitamins, minerals, and calcium to help benefit your teeth. The more healthy foods you fill up on, the less likely you’ll eat nutritionally void junk foods that are high in sugar and starch that can harm your teeth.

Dairy is also your friend. Not only does it have calcium, foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese also contain phosphorous and casein, a highly beneficial protein that not only helps balance the acid levels of your mouth but can also strengthen your teeth and keep them healthy. As a bonus, the probiotics in yogurt can help combat the bad bacteria in your mouth, giving you an extra advantage in taking care of your teeth.

If left untreated, gum disease can cause irreversible damage to you and your body. Gum disease isn’t just some cosmetic concern. Yes, losing teeth is unpleasant and can certainly be embarrassing. Not only will your self-esteem take a critical hit, your quality of life will start to suffer. Ongoing dental pain can prevent you from enjoying your favorite daily activities and hobbies, and your ability to eat and talk clearly can be impaired. Once you start to lose teeth, the problem will worsen, as other teeth will start to shift and try to drift into the site of your missing teeth.

Over time, your health will start to suffer. Gum disease has been linked with cardiovascular disease, leading to a heart attack or stroke in people with advanced stages of it. Alzheimer's disease and dementia are also possible from gum disease due to the close location of your teeth to your brain. Bacteria can quickly travel up into your brain, causing permanent brain damage. Women who are pregnant are at elevated risk of birth complications from gum disease. They are more likely to give birth to a child with low birth weight, or they tragically may lose their pregnancy. Oral bacteria have also been found in cancerous tumors, linking breast and lung cancer to gum disease. With all of these associated risks, taking good care of your oral health is the obvious choice.

If you’re interested in learning more about gum disease, we are more than happy to answer any questions about it. Regular dental appointments are key to helping prevent this dangerous illness, and we advise that our patients see us here at Platte Valley Dental Care every six months for a routine checkup and cleaning. For more information about periodontal disease, or schedule your appointment now, please give us a call at (816) 219-3133 today!

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