There’s more to teeth than meets the eye. Hidden beneath the visible crown are the tooth’s roots set within the jawbone, secured and protected by the gums from bacteria and infection. But if the gums shrink back (recede), the roots become exposed and susceptible to disease, especially at the points where multiple roots branch from each other, areas called furcations.
It all begins with periodontal (gum) disease caused by built-up bacterial plaque from insufficient brushing and flossing. The infection triggers inflammation that over time weakens gum tissues. They begin to detach from the teeth, which can eventually lead to gum recession and root exposure.
This also causes bone loss, especially at the furcations. We can detect any loss (known as a furcation invasion) and how far along it may be with x-ray imaging or by manually probing with an instrument called a periodontal probe.
There are three general classes measuring furcation invasions. In the earliest, Class I, we can feel the invasion as a slight groove; in Class II, it increases to two or more millimeters across. In Class III the bone loss extends from one side of the root all the way to the other (a “through and through”).
At this stage a patient is in danger of losing the tooth, so we’ll have to act promptly. This means first removing accumulated dental plaque and calculus (tartar) to stop the infection and allow the gums to heal. With severe damage, we may need to assist healing with bone and gum tissue grafting, in which we place donor grafts to serve as scaffolding for the appropriate tissue to grow upon.
You can help prevent this situation by practicing effective daily hygiene and visiting your dentist for thorough cleanings at least twice a year (or more if recommended). And at the first signs of a gum infection—swollen, reddened or bleeding gums—make an appointment as soon as possible to have it checked. The sooner we can detect and treat gum disease, the less likely a furcation invasion or worse will be in your future.
While we often associate tooth decay with cavities forming in a tooth’s visible or biting surfaces, the occurrence of this all too common disease isn’t limited to those areas. Cavities can develop in any part of a tooth exposed to bacteria.
Gum recession, the shrinking back of the gums from the teeth, can cause such exposure in areas normally covered by the gums. Because these areas are usually more vulnerable to infection when exposed, cavities can develop at or right below the gum line. Because of their location it can be difficult to fill them or perform other treatments.
One way to make it less difficult is to perform a crown lengthening procedure. While the term sounds like we’re increasing the size of the tooth, we’re actually surgically altering the gums to access more of the affected tooth surface for treatment. It’s typically performed in a dental office with local anesthesia by a general dentist or a periodontist, a specialist in the gums.
During the procedure, the dentist starts by making small incisions in the gums to create a tissue “flap” that can be lifted out of the way. This exposes the underlying bone, which they then reshape to support the gum tissue once it’s re-situated in its new position. The dentist then sutures the gums back in place. Once the gums heal, the decayed area is ready for treatment.
Crown lengthening is also useful for other situations besides treating cavities. If a tooth has broken off at the gum line, for example, there may not be enough remaining structure to support a crown. Crown lengthening can make more of the underlying tooth available for the crown to “grab” onto. It’s also useful in some cases of “gummy smiles,” in which too much of the gum tissue is visible in proportion to the tooth size.
Because crown lengthening often involves removing some of the bone and is thus irreversible, you should discuss this procedure with your dentist in depth beforehand. It could be, though, this minor procedure might make it easier to preserve your teeth and even make them look more attractive.
In her decades-long career, renowned actress Kathy Bates has won Golden Globes, Emmys, and many other honors. Bates began acting in her twenties, but didn't achieve national recognition until she won the best actress Oscar for Misery — when she was 42 years old! “I was told early on that because of my physique and my look, I'd probably blossom more in my middle age,” she recently told Dear Doctor magazine. “[That] has certainly been true.” So if there's one lesson we can take from her success, it might be that persistence pays off.
When it comes to her smile, Kathy also recognizes the value of persistence. Now 67, the veteran actress had orthodontic treatment in her 50's to straighten her teeth. Yet she is still conscientious about wearing her retainer. “I wear a retainer every night,” she said. “I got lazy about it once, and then it was very difficult to put the retainer back in. So I was aware that the teeth really do move.”
Indeed they do. In fact, the ability to move teeth is what makes orthodontic treatment work. By applying consistent and gentle forces, the teeth can be shifted into better positions in the smile. That's called the active stage of orthodontic treatment. Once that stage is over, another begins: the retention stage. The purpose of retention is to keep that straightened smile looking as good as it did when the braces came off. And that's where the retainer comes in.
There are several different kinds of retainers, but all have the same purpose: To hold the teeth in their new positions and keep them from shifting back to where they were. We sometimes say teeth have a “memory” — not literally, but in the sense that if left alone, teeth tend to migrate back to their former locations. And if you've worn orthodontic appliances, like braces or aligners, that means right back where you started before treatment.
By holding the teeth in place, retainers help stabilize them in their new positions. They allow new bone and ligaments to re-form and mature around them, and give the gums time to remodel themselves. This process can take months to years to be complete. But you may not need to wear a retainer all the time: Often, removable retainers are worn 24 hours a day at first; later they are worn only at night. We will let you know what's best in your individual situation.
So take a tip from Kathy Bates, star of the hit TV series American Horror Story, and wear your retainer as instructed. That's the best way to keep your straight new smile from changing back to the way it was — and to keep a bad dream from coming true.
If you would like more information about orthodontic retainers, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more about this topic in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Why Orthodontic Retainers?” and “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.” The interview with Kathy Bates appears in the latest issue of Dear Doctor.
One of the most important revolutions in healthcare in recent decades is the increasing use of lasers. Now, laser technology is making a showing in dental care for the treatment of periodontal (gum) disease.
Lasers (an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation") narrowly focus and amplify light within a small area. First developed in the early 1960s, laser technology rapidly advanced in the ensuing decades with more compact and precise devices that were eventually safe and effective for many types of medical procedures. Its remarkable features are now available for the primary focus of gum disease treatment—removing bacterial plaque.
Plaque is a thin, built-up film of bacteria and food particles on tooth and gum surfaces that serves as a haven for the bacteria that cause gum disease. The continuing presence of plaque and calculus (tartar) enables the infection to thrive and advance within the gum tissues, ultimately damaging them along with supporting bone. As the tissues weaken and bone volume diminishes, the teeth are at greater risk for loss.
It's necessary, therefore, first and foremost to remove all detectable plaque and calculus to stop the infection. This is traditionally done with special hand tools called scalers used to manually remove plaque, or with ultrasonic equipment that vibrates plaque loose to be flushed away with water. These procedures can take numerous sessions and may result in some minor post-procedural discomfort and bleeding during the cleaning.
But lasers specifically designed for plaque removal can minimize tissue damage and resulting discomfort. Because the particular laser light used reacts only with plaque and diseased tissue, it can remove them without disturbing nearby healthy tissue usually more efficiently than traditional scaling. Dentists who've used the technology frequently report less bleeding and higher patient satisfaction.
But before lasers for gum disease treatment are widely adopted, the procedure must undergo further scrutiny. Reports from dentists notwithstanding, not enough research studies have been performed to date that meet the necessary scientific criteria. But if the evidence so far from the field holds up, it's quite possible lasers will one day become a regular part of dental practice for treating gum disease.
If you would like more information on treating gum disease, 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 “Lasers Versus Traditional Cleanings for Treating Gum Disease.”
Many people learn they have periodontal (gum) disease after noticing gum swelling, soreness or bleeding. But what you can see or feel may be only the tip of the iceberg — the damage may extend much deeper.
Gum disease is caused mainly by dental plaque, a thin film of bacteria and food particles built up on teeth due to ineffective brushing and flossing. Infection of the visible gums is only the beginning — left untreated, it can advance well below the gum line and even infect supporting bone.
One critical concern in this regard is the areas where the roots of a tooth separate from each other, known as furcations. Here an infection known as a furcation invasion can cause the bone to weaken and dissolve.
This usually occurs in stages (or classes) we can detect through manual probing and/or with x-rays. In the earliest stage, Class I, we might only notice a slight pocket in the gums with no significant bone loss. In Class II, though, the pocket between the roots has become a horizontal opening of two or more millimeters, indicating definite bone loss with increased pocket depth getting “under” the crown of the tooth. Class III, the last and most serious stage, describes an opening we can probe under the crown all the way to the other side of the tooth; the bone loss now extends “through and through” the furcation.
The basic goal of gum disease treatment is to remove plaque and calculus (tartar) from all tooth and gum surfaces. But removing plaque below the gum line, especially “into” the furcations, can be challenging. We will need instruments called scalers to clean root surfaces, assisted sometimes by ultrasonic equipment to vibrate plaque loose. With furcations we may also need to employ surgery to aid gum or bone tissue regeneration or to make the area easier to access for future cleaning.
Of course, the best way to protect against furcation invasions is to prevent gum disease in the first place. Be sure to brush and floss daily and visit us for thorough dental cleanings and checkups at least every six months.
And don’t delay contacting us if you see any signs of teeth or gum problems. The sooner we can identify gum disease, the more likely we’ll be able to prevent it from doing serious damage to your gums, bone and teeth.
If you would like more information on treating gum disease, 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 “What are Furcations?”
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