I see gums as an end organ, just like a finger. The difference is that gums are hidden – out of sight and out of mind. The surface area of the inflammatory disease process in a patient with advanced periodontal disease could cover a large area of the forearm.
If this was the area the problem affected, you can guarantee that it would be taken seriously and treatment sought immediately. But because patients can’t see their gums, they don’t pay attention to them when they are in a comparative state.
However, by doing so, it might not just be the patients dental health that suffers. Evidence suggests that periodontal disease is associated with the development of other health problems, including:
• Bacterial endocarditis in susceptible patients
• Atherosclerosis and myocardial infarctions
• Premature and low birth weight babies.
Obtaining proof to back up the link between gum disease and these health problems can be difficult. Like much of science, it is shrouded in the mystery of scientific method and statistics. There are also confounding factors (smoking, diet etc) involved in this type of research that can make determining causes and effects extremely difficult too.
It’s not hard to see how problems could develop though. The gums have a blood supply into which all sorts of toxins and inflammatory by-products can be dumped. These are generated by inflammatory disease processes and can take advantage of the blood stream to reek havoc at distant sites in the body.
As clinicians, it’s worth bearing these two points in mind when it comes to treating periodontal disease:
• Would you like to be walking around with a festering mass of diseased tissue in your body?
• If you concentrate on treating the gum disease, then anything else you manage to prevent is a bonus.
Excellent preventative dental care may not only help control periodontal disease and other dental problems, but could also potentially reduce a patient’s exposure to other life threatening problems too.
It’s important not to scare patients when discussing this with them, but it is essential that you point out to them the significant health benefits that cleaning their gums thoroughly, and regularly, could afford them.
• Poor gum health has been linked to the development of some potentially life threatening systemic diseases
• Periodontal disease isn’t visible to other people, but it’s important that your patients realise they shouldn’t ignore it
• Although the link between periodontal disease and poor general health is not fully understood, patients should be made aware of it
• Explaining the risks that poor dental health might pose to patients’ health must be done in a matter of fact and non-intimidating way
• Patients should be told to clean their gums thoroughly and on a regular basis.