Sounds weird, I know. But, according to past United States Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, the mouth (oral cavity) is often referred to as the Sentinel of Health. When you think about it, the mouth is the largest entry point to the inside of the body. It is easily accessible and saliva is now becoming a significant diagnostic medium that can serve to detect what may be going on in the body, like blood.
To really get down to it, the oral cavity is the first part of the digestive tract. It communicates with the outside world and literally brings the outside environment inside the body. The digestive tract has a major communication system with the body and the mouth is simply the first step. For physicians and dental professionals to have easy access to visible signs of disease or inflammation is a luxury. The more we learn about the oral cavity and what it can tell us, the more preventive we can be in terms of using that information for better overall health.
An ancient medical principle goes like this: Superior doctors prevent disease. Mediocre doctors treat the disease before it is evident. Inferior doctors treat full blown disease”.
That being said, in terms of treating periodontal disease (gum disease), it is often in late stage disease before it is treated. In the past, treatment was based on how much bone of the upper or lower jaw was destroyed to determine the treatment. Unfortunately, that is often still the case. By the time that bone is involved in the infection, it can require surgery, tooth loss, is often more difficult to treat, and it always more expensive. Think about it, nowhere else in the body would we be willing to let an infection get to a stage of bone involvement before treatment was recommended. Thankfully, we are moving oral health care to a prevention based treatment model.
So what has changed? What can your oral health team see that has become the forefront of disease prevention? INFLAMMATION.
According to WebMD, Inflammation is a process by which the body’s white blood cells and substances they produce, protect us from infection with foreign organisms, such as bacteria and viruses. The key symptoms are often redness and swelling.
It is that process that is the catalyst for plaque formation in artery walls and all too often the contributor to further, and more serious, breakdowns in general health.
Compare that definition to Gingivitis, which by definition means inflamed gingiva (gums). A visible showing of the body’s defense system.
So, what we know now as health professionals, is that inflammation is protective for short periods of time, but can be harmful when it becomes chronic and lasts for long periods of time. (E.g. chronic periodontal disease). Thus, it is chronic inflammation and the inflammatory mechanism that is the relationship to other health problems, primarily cardiovascular disease.
When we see redness, swelling, and bleeding in the gum tissue, we know the inflammation that is occurring is caused by bacterial invaders and the body is starting its defense process. The more inflammation we have in our bodies, the more health risks we assume as a result of it.
Therefore, in our practice, we begin closely analyzing inflammation at its earliest times to help resolve it. That is the reason you will see things like a phase contrast microscope that will show if white blood cells are present, what types of bacteria are causing the inflammation. You may hear discussions about bacterial DNA testing, which is a test using saliva, as opposed to blood, to tell us how to better treat gum infections (inflammation), in the earliest, most conservative manner.
When all health care providers begin to work together in terms of disease prevention, everyone wins. We know the mouth is a contributor to health and much like Dr. Satcher, believe that paying attention to the visual signs of inflammation play a crucial role in stopping the destructive process that chronic inflammation initiates.
Teeth are great, but there is far more to the mouth that literally meets the eye! Our goal is to detect and prevent disease at the earliest point possible.