Before the advent of modern dentistry, people commonly suffered toothache and tooth loss from their youth on. Many were disfigured by dark, crooked, on missing teeth. Toothless senior citizens suffered malnutrition and early death because they were unable to chew.
Today, most dental patients can be free of toothache, keep their teeth throughout their life, and have a pleasing smile. How did modern dentistry achieve these three remarkable feats?
Preventive dentistry, emphasizing education and regular checkups, has been a key factor in avoiding toothache and tooth loss. Thus, some have benefited so much from education in oral hygiene that they rarely need dental treatment.
Nevertheless, many people avoid the dentist. Some neglect dental treatment out of indifference. Others are deterred by the expense. Still others are afraid. Whatever, your circumstance, it is worth asking: What can the dentist do for me? Is a visit worthwhile? To appreciate the importance of preventive dentistry, we need to understand what dentists are trying to prevent?
Dentists can help to prevent the torment of toothache and tooth loss. With your cooperation, dentists try to fight the effects of plaque, a soft film of bacteria thrive on food particles. They convert sugar into acids that attack the tooth enamel, making it porous.
Eventually, caries, or tooth decay, results when the porous area collapses to form a cavity. You feel no discomfort at this stage, but when the decay reaches the central pulp of your tooth, you may suffer acute pain.
The bacteria that form plaque have another way of tormenting you. If plaque is not carefully brushed away, it hardens to form a calcified deposit called calculus, or tartar, which may inflame the gums and make them pull away from the tooth.
This results in a gap between tooth and gum where trapped food provides a feast for bacteria that may infest your gums. Your dentist can help control this condition, but if this is not cared for, the tissue surrounding your teeth may become so damaged that your teeth actually fall out. More teeth are lost this way than through tooth decay.
Your saliva provides a measure of protection from this double attack of bacteria. Whether you have eaten a full meal or just a cookie, your saliva needs between 15 and 45 minutes to clear away food particles and neutralize the acid in the plaque in your teeth.
The time depends on how much sticky sugar or food debris clings to your teeth. Apparently, it is during these minutes that your teeth are damaged. Thus, the amount of damage done to your teeth may depend, not on the quantity of sugar you eat, but on the frequency of your meals and sugary snacks.
Since saliva flow is low while you sleep, one of the most destructive things you can do to your teeth is eat or drink sugar and then retire for the night without brushing your teeth. On the other hand, chewing sugar-free gum after meals is said to increase saliva flow and help protect your teeth.
Dentists recommend having regular checkups once or twice a year, depending on the condition of your teeth. During the checkup your dentist will likely take X-rays and examine your teeth carefully for caries. Using a local anesthetic and high-speed drill, he can usually fill any cavities he finds without causing you pain.
For those who are especially fearful, a few dentists now use lasers or decay-dissolving gel, which can reduce or even eliminate the need to use a drill or a local anesthetic. With children, dentists pay special attention to the newly erupted molars to see if they have any fissures or grooves on the biting surface that will be difficult to clean with a toothbrush. The dentist may recommend covering such grooves with a sealant to make the tooth surface smooth and easy to clean, thus protecting it from decay.
With adult patients, dentists are especially concerned about preventing gum disease. So if the dentist finds any deposits of hardened calculus, he will scrape them away. Most people tend to miss certain areas of their teeth each time they brush them, so your dentist may point out how you can improve your brushing skills. Some dentists refer their patients to a specially trained dental hygienist for this important service.
If you have damaged, missing, or crooked teeth, you will be pleased to hear that dentists have many new techniques for restoring them. However, restorative treatment is expensive, so you should beware of spending beyond your means.
Nevertheless, many people feel that restorative treatment is worth the expense. Perhaps the dentist can restore your ability to chew. Or he may be able to make your smile more attractive –a matter of no small importance, since disfigured teeth can affect the quality of your life.
For broken or stained front teeth, a dentist may recommend a veneer, perhaps made of translucent porcelain that appears very similar to natural enamel. Veneers are bonded to the surface of the damaged tooth, giving it a new shape and appearance.
For more severely damaged teeth, a dentist may recommend a cap, often called a crown. This entirely covers what remains of the tooth and provides it with a complete new surface, either of gold or of a material with a natural appearance.
What can your dentist do about lost teeth? He can fit a removable partial denture, or he can provide a fixed bridge that caps a tooth at each side of the gap and holds one or more false teeth in position. Another option that is becoming popular is an implant.
The dentist inserts a titanium anchor into the jawbone where the tooth used to be, and when the bone and gum have grown back into place, he attaches an artificial tooth to the anchor. It is almost like having a real tooth.
Crooked teeth can be embarrassing and hard to clean, making them prone to disease. If teeth do not come together properly, they may be painful and make chewing difficult. Happily, dentists can usually correct such problems with braces. As a result of recent advances in design, modern braces are less obvious and need less-frequent adjustment.
Some dentists are giving increased attention to the treatment of bad breath. Most people have bad breath occasionally and some regularly. There are several possible causes. Some dentists are equipped to diagnose the specific cause. In many cases it originates with bacteria, often at the far back region of the tongue. Brushing or scraping the tongue can help, as can increasing your saliva flow by chewing sugar-free gum. Cleaning your mouth is particularly important after consuming milk products, meat, or fish.
If visiting a dentist makes you especially anxious, your dentist will want to help you to cope with your fear. So tell him how you feel. Talk with him about a hand signal you can use to indicate that you feel pain or are afraid. Many patients have found that this gives them more confidence.
Perhaps you fear being scolded. You may worry that the dentist will belittle you for not taking better care of your teeth. However, since such comments are bad for business, your fear of being chided is probably unfounded. Most dentists have an interest in speaking kindly to their clients.
Many people avoid the dentist because they fear the expense. But if it is possible for you to have a checkup now, you may avoid problems and expensive treatment later. In many places there are different levels of dental services to suit every pocket.
Even the most basically equipped dental office will probably have X-ray equipment and a high-speed drill. Dentists can perform most procedures with very little discomfort to the patient. The cost of local anesthetic is low enough for most people to afford, even those with limited resources.
Dentists are dedicated to relieving pain, not causing it. Dental treatment is no longer the traumatic experience that your grandparents probably remember. Since healthy teeth contribute to improved general health and can help you to enjoy life more fully, why not pay your dentist a visit? You may be pleasantly surprised.