My dirty little secret
A couple of days ago a friend was complaining to me that he had gotten something stuck between his teeth. He’d had lunch at a barbecue joint and wouldn’t you know it he had some brisket jammed between his molars. He was looking for a toothpick or a straw to get it out because it was kind of uncomfortable.
If you’ve ever suffered the same fate you’ll know what I’m talking about. It isn’t necessarily painful, but it’s a kind of persistent pressure that doesn’t really let up until you get whatever is jammed in there out. There are a lot of nerve endings in the gums and the tissues that support the teeth that tell you brain, “hey, something funny is going on here.”
So I whipped out the floss that I carry in my pocket and rescued him. It took him about to seconds to snap the offending piece of brisket out and he was good to go.
“I’m lucky you’re a dentist,” he said as if it’s a given that dentists don’t go anywhere without floss, a toothbrush and maybe a spare dental mirror for good measure. The reality is my dirty little secret.
In a perfect world, the contacts between your teeth are tight enough that normal chewing doesn’t wedge food between them. Too tight makes it so flossing to remove plaque and food debris is difficult or impossible, but too loose means food can become impacted. Food impaction is an inconvenience to be sure, but it can become a problem. A spot where food impacts is more prone to decay simply due to the fact that you cannot remove the debris. The bugs (and by bugs, I mean bacteria) that sit there will metabolize the sugars in the impacted food into acid. When the pH of that part of the mouth reaches a critical level (5.5 to be exact) then the enamel of your teeth will start to dissolve. The longer impacted gunk sits there, the greater the chances that the pH can drop into dangerous levels and cause cavities.
Impacted food can also cause gum problems. I’ve spoken with periodontists (gum specialists) that have removed popcorn kernels from gum abscesses. People with gum disease are more prone to food impaction because their teeth are slightly more mobile than those without bone loss around their teeth. The bottom line is that places where food gets impacted are at greater risk for cavities and gum disease.
Why do we have spots where food gets stuck? Well, some people have naturally loose contacts between their teeth. As I mentioned, people with gum disease are definitely more likely to get stuff stuck in their teeth. If you have a broken or badly decayed tooth they will often be a spot that holds food debris. Finally, dental restorations like fillings or crowns can have inadequate contacts and be a risk factor on their own.
How do we fix it? Well, if you have naturally loose contacts between your teeth I’m not going to “fix” them if they don’t have disease. Those folks need to be extra careful in their brushing and flossing habits. Contacts that are particularly annoying to a patient can usually be “closed” in a minimally invasive fashion if the patient chooses. But if the loose contact in question is caused by decay or worse, the tooth is broken, we better fix it pretty fast!
Dentists probably floss more often than regular folks, but there is no law that requires dentists to carry floss. I carry floss because I have two very loose contacts. Both of them are caused by restorations that have opened up over time. I need to get them fixed and I’ve been procrastinating. That’s my dirty little secret. It may surprise you that dentists are like other human beings…some of us put off treatment that’s necessary, too. But that’s no excuse! Let’s unite in our commitment to close open contacts! No more food impaction!
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If you’re looking for a dentist in Saginaw, we’re always happy to accept new patients! You can request an appointment online or call the office at (989) 799-9133. And, as always, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I always answer my own emails!