Many of us think of dentistry as separate from medicine. After all, we may go to our family doctor if we have a complaint about our stomach, our foot, or our throat, but the dentist only looks at the health of our teeth and gums. It’s almost as if the mouth were completely separate from the rest of the body.
Of course, this is a false way of looking at it. The health of the mouth and the rest of the body are very much interconnected. Yet this blindness many of us have can keep us from seeing how problems that start in the mouth affect the rest of the body or, conversely, how problems that show up in the body can be fixed in the mouth.
To illustrate what I mean, here are three fairly common examples of health issues where dentistry and whole-body health intersect.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder TMD
TMD is a disorder of the complex jaw joint which can cause pain and clicking in the jaw, difficulty opening or closing the mouth, and even difficulty chewing and swallowing. But it can also cause a host of problems outside of the mouth. It’s a frequent cause of unexplained headaches. It can cause pain in the shoulders, neck, and back. It can cause earaches or ringing in the ears. These are just more of the common symptoms associated with TMD.
Unfortunately, many people live with this kind of pain and never connect it to what’s going on in their mouth. They may visit family doctors, neurologists, and other medical specialists and get no permanent relief for their pain because they can’t find the source. If only they knew to mention their symptoms to their dentist, they may discover that in many cases, braces or other orthodontic appliances can correct the bite and put the jaw back into alignment, eliminating the pain. It just requires an understanding of how something in the mouth can cause pain elsewhere.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
As the name suggests, this type of sleep apnea – where individuals frequently stop breathing during sleep – is the result of an obstruction in the airway. This happens when the muscles of the throat relax too much and the soft tissues of the airway collapse, impeding airflow.
On the surface this definitely looks like a problem that can only be addressed by a medical doctor, not a dentist. But depending on the root cause of the OSA, a dentist may be able to provide a solution. Rather than have to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, which many people dislike because it requires wearing a mask all night long, special dental appliances can be fitted that keep the airway open throughout the night. This is certainly a case where dentistry and medicine overlap.
System-Wide Infection and Disease
Our gums don’t get enough credit. They have an important job to do and when they’re healthy and well taken care of, they do it very effectively. The gums create a barrier between the outside world and the inside of your body. That is, they keep out bacteria and other pathogens that could cause us harm. Unfortunately, if the gums are neglected due to lack of brushing and flossing, or recede too far due to age or bad habits like over-brushing, the protective seal can be broken. This can allow pathogens to get into the bloodstream and cause system-wide infection.
Though rare, there are cases of people dying after infection that began in the mouth. More commonly, the mouth is associated with long-term, system-wide conditions. Gum disease has been linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and more. These links may be due to system-wide inflammation or bacteria that enters the body when it shouldn’t.
The Answer: Physiological Dentistry and Physiologic Orthodontics
The mouth is not separate from the rest of the body. The health of one affects the health of the other, and that’s why I believe in treating the whole person rather than just their teeth. I practice physiologic dentistry and physiological orthodontics, which aim to treat symptoms in the body that originate in the mouth.
If you believe that healthcare should treat the whole person rather than one part at a time, I encourage you to come see me at my practice or look for a physiologic dentist in your area. And the next time you’re at the dentist, don’t forget to mention other symptoms you’ve been having – even if you think they’re totally unrelated to oral health. You never know what your dentist may be able to do for your pain.