Fans of the legendary rock band Steely Dan received some sad news a few months ago: Co-founder Walter Becker died unexpectedly at the age of 67. The cause of his death was an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. This disease, which is related to oral cancer, may not get as much attention as some others. Yet Becker's name is the latest addition to the list of well-known people whose lives it has cut short—including actor Humphrey Bogart, writer Christopher Hitchens, and TV personality Richard Dawson.
As its name implies, esophageal cancer affects the esophagus: the long, hollow tube that joins the throat to the stomach. Solid and liquid foods taken into the mouth pass through this tube on their way through the digestive system. Worldwide, it is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths.
Like oral cancer, esophageal cancer generally does not produce obvious symptoms in its early stages. As a result, by the time these diseases are discovered, both types of cancer are most often in their later stages, and often prove difficult to treat successfully. Another similarity is that dentists can play an important role in oral and esophageal cancer detection.
Many people see dentists more often than any other health care professionals—at recommended twice-yearly checkups, for example. During routine examinations, we check the mouth, tongue, neck and throat for possible signs of oral cancer. These may include lumps, swellings, discolorations, and other abnormalities—which, fortunately, are most often harmless. Other symptoms, including persistent coughing or hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and unexplained weight loss, are common to both oral and esophageal cancer. Chest pain, worsening heartburn or indigestion and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also alert us to the possibility of esophageal cancer.
Cancer may be a scary subject—but early detection and treatment can offer many people the best possible outcome. If you have questions about oral or esophageal cancer, call our office or schedule a consultation. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Cancer.”
Pain has a purpose: it tells us when something's wrong with our bodies. Sometimes it's obvious, like a cut or bruise. Sometimes, though, it takes a bit of sleuthing to find out what's wrong.
That can be the case with a toothache. One possible cause is perhaps the most obvious: something's wrong with the tooth. More specifically, decay has invaded the tooth's inner pulp, which is filled with an intricate network of nerves that react to infection by emitting pain. The pain can feel dull or sharp, constant or intermittent.
But decay isn't the only cause for tooth pain: periodontal (gum) disease can trigger similar reactions. Bacteria living in dental plaque, a thin film of food particles on tooth surfaces, infect the gums. This weakens the tissues and can cause them to shrink back (recede) from the teeth and expose the roots. As a result, the teeth can become painfully sensitive to hot or cold foods or when biting down.
Finding the true pain source determines how we treat it. If decay has invaded the pulp you'll need a root canal treatment to clean out the infection and fill the resulting void with a special filling; this not only saves the tooth, it ends the pain. If the gums are infected, we'll need to aggressively remove all plaque and calculus (hardened plaque deposits) to restore the gums to health.
To further complicate matters, an infection from tooth decay could eventually affect the gums and supporting bone, just as a gum infection could enter the tooth by way of the roots. Once the infection crosses from tooth to gums (or gums to tooth), the tooth's long-term outlook grows dim.
So, if you're noticing any kind of tooth pain, or you have swollen, reddened or bleeding gums, you should call us for an appointment as soon as possible. The sooner we can diagnose the problem and begin appropriate treatment the better your chances of a good outcome — and an end to the pain.
If you would like more information on diagnosing and treating tooth pain, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Confusing Tooth Pain: Combined Root Canal and Gum Problems.”
If you’re the kind of person who can’t do without a smart phone, you’ve probably heard the expression “There’s an app for that!” These nifty little programs let you get directions, check the weather, watch stock prices… even optimize your sleep patterns and make high-pitched dog whistles. And shortly, you’ll be able to check how well you’ve been brushing your teeth.
News reports have mentioned a soon-to-be-available toothbrush that will interface with an app on your smart phone. The brush has sensors that record how much time you spend brushing, whether you reach all parts of your mouth, and whether you brush correctly (with up and down motions, not just side to side). It charts your oral hygiene habits, scores your brushing technique — and, if you allow it, shares information about how well (or poorly) you’re doing with your family, friends… even your dentist.
So do you need to run out and buy one of these gizmos as soon as they’re available? Of course not! However, anything that encourages you to take better care of your oral hygiene can’t hurt. A wise dentist once said: The important thing is not the brush, but the hand that holds it.
If you’re a “gadget person,” you may be intrigued by the device’s high-tech design, and the fact that it interfaces with your phone. Plus, maybe the idea of compiling (and sharing) your brushing record has a certain appeal. On the other hand, you might prefer a sleek, light electric brush that doesn’t keep track of your movements. Or maybe the simplest brush of all — a manual one, with soft bristles and a comfortable handle — works best for you.
The most important thing is that you regularly practice good oral hygiene: Brush twice a day, for two minutes each time, and floss once a day. Use whichever brush is best for you, and be sure to change it every three months, or when the bristles get stiff. Stay away from sugary snacks between meals (they contribute to decay by keeping your teeth bathed in acidic byproducts). Don’t use tobacco in any form, or chew on things that don’t belong in your mouth. And remember to come in for regular exams and professional cleanings. If an app helps you do these things — we're all for it.
If you would like to learn more about maintaining good oral hygiene, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. For more information, see the Dear Doctor magazine article “Top 10 Oral Health Tips For Children.”
As a cancer patient, you know how important radiation and chemotherapy are to overcoming the disease. But these treatments often come at a price to other aspects of your health, including your teeth and gums if the treatment target includes the head or neck regions.
Radiation and chemotherapy are effective because they target and destroy cancer cells. Unfortunately, they may also kill non-cancerous, healthy cells; in the mouth, for example, they can damage the cells in the salivary glands and disrupt their ability to produce adequate saliva flow, leading to xerostomia (dry mouth).
This could seriously affect your teeth’s protective enamel shell. As we eat or drink, our mouth’s pH level can become too acidic. Acid is your enamel’s primary enemy because it causes the minerals in the enamel to soften and dissolve (de-mineralization). Saliva neutralizes acid and replaces much of the enamel’s minerals.
Without adequate saliva flow, the enamel will tend to erode over time. You can further aggravate the situation if you routinely consume acidic foods and drinks, like sipping energy drinks or soda during the day. Once the enamel is gone it can’t be replaced naturally, and the teeth will be in serious danger of tooth decay and eventual loss of function and appearance.
To avoid these consequences you should take steps during cancer treatment to reduce your risk for xerostomia or other unhealthy mouth conditions: limit your consumption of acidic foods and beverages; use mouth rinses to counteract acidity and inhibit bacterial growth; and promote saliva flow through medication.
It may be, though, that enamel erosion and subsequent tooth damage is unavoidable. In this case, you may need to consider restorative options with artificial crowns or other cosmetic enhancements — not only to improve your appearance but also to protect your natural teeth from further damage.
Before considering the latter, you should undergo a complete dental examination to assess your condition and make sure you have adequate bone and gum support, and any dental disease under control. From here, we can go about restoring the attractive smile that may have faded during your battle with cancer.
As the host of America's Funniest Home Videos on ABC TV, Alfonso Ribeiro has witnessed plenty of unintentional physical comedy…or, as he puts it in an interview with Dear Doctor–Dentistry & Oral Health magazine, "When people do stuff and you're like, 'Dude, you just hurt yourself for no reason!'" So when he had his own dental dilemma, Alfonso was determined not to let it turn onto an "epic fail."
The television personality was in his thirties when a painful tooth infection flared up. Instead of ignoring the problem, he took care of it by visiting his dentist, who recommended a root canal procedure. "It's not like you wake up and go, 'Yay, I'm going to have my root canal today!'" he joked. "But once it's done, you couldn't be happier because the pain is gone and you're just smiling because you're no longer in pain!"
Alfonso's experience echoes that of many other people. The root canal procedure is designed to save an infected tooth that otherwise would probably be lost. The infection may start when harmful bacteria from the mouth create a small hole (called a cavity) in the tooth's surface. If left untreated, the decay bacteria continue to eat away at the tooth's structure. Eventually, they can reach the soft pulp tissue, which extends through branching spaces deep inside the tooth called root canals.
Once infection gets a foothold there, it's time for root canal treatment! In this procedure, the area is first numbed; next, a small hole is made in the tooth to give access to the pulp, which contains nerves and blood vessels. The diseased tissue is then carefully removed with tiny instruments, and the canals are disinfected to prevent bacteria from spreading. Finally, the tooth is sealed up to prevent re-infection. Following treatment, a crown (cap) is usually required to restore the tooth's full function and appearance.
Root canal treatment sometimes gets a bad rap from people who are unfamiliar with it, or have come across misinformation on the internet. The truth is, a root canal doesn't cause pain: It relieves pain! The alternatives—having the tooth pulled or leaving the infection untreated—are often much worse.
Having a tooth extracted and replaced can be costly and time consuming…yet a missing tooth that isn't replaced can cause problems for your oral health, nutrition and self-esteem. And an untreated infection doesn't just go away on its own—it continues to smolder in your body, potentially causing serious problems. So if you need a root canal, don't delay!
If you would like additional information on root canal treatment, please contact us or schedule a consultation. You can learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “A Step-By-Step Guide to Root Canal Treatment” and “Root Canal Treatment: What You Need to Know.”
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