Is There A Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis Going On In Your Mouth?

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view from inside mouth to dentist looking at teeth and gums

Recession is never a good thing; whether it’s the economy, a hairline, or your gums that are receding, they are all going to impact your ability to go on vacation, flirt with the opposite sex, and smile for your DMV picture.

When a tooth erupts into your mouth, it is surrounded by a layer of bone. If the bone is of a normal thickness, it causes the developing gum tissue (that covers the bone) to develop as a thick, durable layer designed to withstand the forces of (hopefully) years of eating steak, corn, and a lifelong Cheeto’s habit.

Empty Your Pockets and Beat the Recession

Your mouth is comprised of a series of muscles that allow it to function, some of which originate under the lips and skin, where the muscle inserts into the gums. Normal, healthy gum tissue should appear scalloped along the shape of the crowns, with a little point between at the base of each tooth.

illustration of healthy gums and bone vs receding gums and reduced bone level

Gum recession is the process where the edge of the gum tissue that helps to hold your tooth in place, pulls back to expose more of the tooth, eventually including the root. This ‘pulling back’ is what creates a pocket around the tooth. Pockets are a great place to store your keys or wallet, but in your mouth they are an ideal place for bacteria to hang out and grow into a full fledged case of periodontal disease.

If you are unable to get the bacteria out (any pocket greater than 3mm is going to have to be “emptied” by your hygienist who has special tools that can reach down in there) it can result in damaged teeth and bone structure. Eventually everything is going to come out of that pocket, including the tooth! Be aware that gum disease is not the same as gingivitis, which is just inflammation of the gum tissue. A permanent detachment of your gum from the tooth means you now have periodontal disease.

I’m Just Naturally Sensitive (& Other Bad Habits)

Most people don’t actually realize their gums are receding because it’s such a gradual process. One of the first indicators can be sensitivity, which makes sense if your gum is peeling back and exposing the root part of your tooth. This also gives the effect that your teeth are ‘growing’ longer. And because your roots are not covered in that pretty, shiny white enamel like the crown part of the tooth, the dentin makes them appear more yellow and darker in color. You may also be able to feel a notch around the gum line.

As we all know, not taking care of your teeth can turn plaque into calculus, which builds up around them like dirty cement, making it hard for a non-professional to keep clean. Rampant decay obviously causes significant problems, and recession is a secondary result of untreated cavities, delayed cleanings, and persistent gum problems.

Smoking is not good for your lungs, and it’s also bad news for your gums. Ongoing use of tobacco (in any form) leads to sticky plaque build up, which is even harder to remove. It causes the gum tissue to lose vital blood supplies, allowing secondary gum infections to occur, creating the aforementioned tissue loss.

Any chronic, repeated irritation can negatively impact your periodontal ligament. Notches are formed in the tooth’s enamel, causing sensitive gum tissue to creep down the root surface. Physical trauma can happen any number of ways, including; scrubbing at your teeth with an overly hard-bristled toothbrush, a removable partial denture that does not fit correctly, or a piercing in the lip or tongue.

I Blame My Parents!

Some people are just more susceptible to gum disease. Studies have found that 30% of the population may be predisposed, despite excellent oral hygiene habits. Bacteria can be passed from a parent to a child through kisses, or as we have all witnessed, an infant dropping (or throwing) their pacifier on the ground, only to have it picked up by mom or dad, who gives it a quick ‘clean’ in their own mouth, before returning it to the unhappy child. Anatomical factors, like the shape of your face, are inherited from your parents, so if they have a misaligned bite chances are, so may you.

My mother, sister, and niece all have identical jaws, with a clinically significant overbite. As a result, my mother keeps breaking off her crowns and a bridge (conveniently, every time she comes for a visit), and has to have regular visits with the periodontist (a dentist who specializes in treating the gums). My niece is now in braces to correct her malocclusion (bad bite) so that she doesn’t end up like grandma. The problem with a misaligned bite means that teeth are unable to come together correctly, and forces are then distributed unevenly on only certain teeth and surrounding gums, which, you guessed it, leads to recession.

Crooked teeth are also prone to tartar build up, and are therefore harder to keep clean. Along with having a ‘bad bite,’ having too much of a bite, because you are grinding and clenching, has the same effects on your periodontal ligament.

Sometimes, orthodontic treatment (to correct a misaligned bite) can cause gums to recede, however this is only the case in individuals who do not have heavy, thick layers of bone over the teeth that are being moved. Moving a tooth too quickly using braces may not allow the body enough time to adjust, and it is therefore harder to maintain healthy gum levels.

Crisis Averted

Obviously, there are a number of ways to deal with recession, depending on the cause. So, while disowning your parents won’t fix any periodontal problems, a more strategic oral hygiene regimen, collaborating with a periodontist or orthodontist to discuss soft tissue grafting, and giving up a few bad habits are all attainable solutions.

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