Eat more vegetables, exercise more, avoid processed foods, drink more water, wear a mask, get more sleep, and maintain healthy body weight. These are just a few of the many recommendations made by experts to stay healthy and lower your risk of serious medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Most lists do not include oral health as contributing to a longer, healthier life.
Most people view dental professionals as caretakers of teeth and gums. According to the American Dental Association, less than half of adults in America visit a dentist regularly. The reasons for most dental visits are pain, discolored teeth, or a broken tooth. Most people do not view the health of their teeth and gums as contributing to their overall health.
However, an increasing amount of research continues to show a link between gum disease and significant medical conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Adverse pregnancy outcomes
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Kidney disease
- Oral cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Cognitive dysfunction such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
We do not yet know the exact link between oral health and these systemic diseases, but the evidence points to inflammation as the culprit. As researchers discover more information about these connections, the role of dental hygienists takes on greater significance. Regular professional teeth cleaning may become as significant as adequate exercise and sleep in its contribution to fighting disease and promoting health.
Slight bleeding when you floss becomes more significant when it is considered an independent risk factor for certain severe and life-threatening diseases. This connection creates a sense of urgency to control gingivitis in its earliest stage. What are the implications of this for dentists and RDHs?
The priority of education
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that almost half of all adults aged 30 and older have a form of periodontal disease. The incidence rises to more than two-thirds for adults over the age of 70. There are many reasons for this, but clearly, there is room for improvement in oral hygiene home care habits.
Preventing gingivitis may require changes in how we educate and motivate people to brush, floss, and get regular dental checkups. Our education programs need to extend beyond benefits such as a brighter smile, fresher breath, and keeping teeth for a lifetime. Patients need awareness of the research linking gum inflammation and systemic disease.
However, we know that fear of contracting a disease is only marginally successful as an extrinsic factor to motivate someone to change a behavior. Dentists and dental hygienists will need to focus on what is important to each individual in order to tap into their intrinsic motivation to improve their oral hygiene. Fear of an ischemic heart event might not be enough to motivate someone to floss daily, but the desire to see their grandchildren grow up could inspire them to keep their gums healthy and free of inflammation.
The priority of technique
Interdental cleaning is essential to the prevention of gum inflammation. The most common method to accomplish this is flossing. Unfortunately, many people avoid flossing or floss incorrectly. Improper flossing technique is not only ineffective in removing plaque and preventing inflammation, but it can also cause periodontal bone loss.
It takes time to learn how to floss correctly between and around each tooth. In educating patients, it is necessary to spend time both teaching and watching them floss. As dental professionals, it is easy to take for granted how important it is to floss beneath the gum line and the gingival sulcus's full depth. Yet, correctly flossing is essential to preventing and eliminating gum inflammation.
Many interdental cleaning aids are available today to use in conjunction with flossing to combat gum disease. Some of the popular ones include:
- Interdental brushes. The research on interdental brushes' effectiveness shows a high level of effectiveness in removing dental plaque when combined with brushing. Most dentists and dental hygienists strongly recommend using these brushes in conjunction with flossing for the best results.
- Wooden interdental cleaners. Many patients, especially older ones, find wood sticks and other wooden cleaners easier to use. It is best to use these as an adjunct to flossing.
- Oral irrigators. These require less skill than other tools and can effectively remove subgingival plaque, according to some research.
The regular dental check up
As more information becomes available linking oral and overall health, we are likely to see added emphasis placed on regular dental exams and professional teeth cleaning. The dental hygienist's skill in maintaining healthy gums may eventually be viewed as critical to one's health and disease prevention as regular physical exams and blood work by a physician are.
Research linking gum inflammation and systemic diseases and the focus on gum health comes at an opportune time for the future business success of dental practices. Forecasting models predict a decline in dental visits for treatment purposes but an increase in preventive care services. There will always be a need for the treatment skills of dentists and RDHs. But preventive skills and the ability to teach, communicate, and motivate patients in oral hygiene habits will be valuable assets for the dental professional.
More than a smile
Dentists and dental hygienists take great pride, and rightfully so, in helping patients have smiles that give them confidence and make their lives better. Saving and restoring teeth so that foods can be enjoyed and provide healthy nutrition make dentistry a rewarding and fulfilling profession.
While these professional benefits will continue, the future may see dentists and dental hygienists take their place alongside cardiologists, nephrologists, oncologists, pulmonologists, and internal medicine physicians to help prevent some of the most common systemic diseases.
The role of the dental hygienist will continue to expand in the delivery of quality professional dental care. With such a bright future for RDHs, many hygienists will want to take more control of their careers and future.
Cloud Dentistry provides the opportunity for dental professionals such as RDHs to control their schedule, work environment, and income.