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.”
Drugs play an indispensable role in treating disease. For example, life without antibiotics would be much more precarious—common infections we think nothing of now would suddenly become life-threatening.
But even the most beneficial drug can have disruptive side effects. Antibiotics in particular can cause a rare but still disturbing one: a growth on the tongue that at first glance looks like dark hair. In fact, it's often called "black hairy tongue."
It isn't hair—it's an overgrowth of naturally occurring structures on the tongue called filiform papillae. These tiny bumps on the tongue's upper surface help grip food while you're chewing. They're normally about a millimeter in length and tend to be scraped down in the normal course of eating. As they're constantly growing, they replenish quickly.
We're not sure how it occurs, but it seems with a small portion of the population the normal growth patterns of the papillae become unbalanced after taking antibiotics, particularly those in the tetracycline family. Smoking and poor oral hygiene also seem to contribute to this growth imbalance. As a result, the papillae can grow as long as 18 millimeters with thin shafts resembling hair. It's also common for food debris and bacteria to adhere to this mass and discolor it in shades of yellow, green, brown or black.
While it's appearance can be bizarre or even frightening, it's not health-threatening. It's mostly remedied by removing the original cause, such as changing to a different antibiotic or quitting smoking, and gently cleaning the tongue everyday by brushing it or using a tongue scraper you can obtain from a pharmacy.
One word of caution: don't stop any medication you suspect of a side effect without first discussing it with your prescribing doctor. While effects like black hairy tongue are unpleasant, they're not harmful—and you don't want to interfere with treatments for problems that truly are.
If your tooth sustains damage that compromises its structure — typically through decay or trauma — you have several options depending on the extent of the damage: One of them is a crown. This method saves the tooth and its root and completely conceals the visible portion of the tooth, or crown, under a natural-looking cap made to mimic as closely as possible the size, shape and color of the original tooth.
Crowns also hide imperfections in the original tooth like discoloration, chipping, fractures, excessive wear (from bruxism, or tooth grinding, for example), or abnormalities in the way the tooth formed. And they’re used following root canal treatments, which treat infected pulp at the center (canal) of a tooth root by removing the pulp and replacing it with an inert, rubber-like material.
Saving the natural tooth has long been the goal of dentistry because normal micromovements of the tooth root, which is suspended in its jawbone socket by elastic ligaments, stimulate the surrounding bone to rejuvenate. Without that stimulation, the bone continues to lose old cells, but no longer replaces them. Crowns are also designed to restore tooth function.
The function and location of the damaged tooth can determine what material the crown will be made of. If the damaged tooth is clearly visible when you smile, porcelain, the most realistic-looking material, is almost always used. If the tooth receives significant bite force, a stronger material is considered — either, a gold/porcelain combination, or a high-strength ceramic. If you are restoring a second molar, an all-gold crown may be considered.
With the advent of dental implants, saving a damaged tooth is no longer the only option for preserving the health of the bone surrounding the tooth root. The implant — a tiny biocompatible, titanium screw-like artificial root — is placed in the jawbone and is then capped with a natural-looking crown of course!
If you would like more information about dental crowns, 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 “Crowns & Bridgework.”
If you're the principal caregiver for an older person, you may have already faced age-related health challenges with them. Good preventive care, however, can ease the impact of health problems. This is especially true for their teeth and gums: with your support you're loved one can have fewer dental problems and enjoy better health overall.
Here are a number of things you should focus on to protect an older person's dental health.
Hygiene difficulties. With increased risk of arthritis and similar joint problems, older people may find brushing and flossing more difficult. You can help by modifying their toothbrush handles with a tennis ball or bicycle grip for an easier hold, or switch them to an electric toothbrush. A water flosser, a device that uses a pressurized water spray to remove plaque, may also be easier for them to use than thread flossing.
Dry mouth. Xerostomia, chronic dry mouth, is more prevalent among older populations. Dry mouth can cause more than discomfort—with less acid-neutralizing saliva available in the mouth, the risk for dental diseases like tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease can soar. To improve their saliva flow, talk with their doctors about alternative medications that cause less dry mouth; and encourage your loved one to drink more water and use products that help boost saliva flow.
Dentures. If your older person wears dentures, be sure these appliances are being cleaned and maintained daily to maximize their function and reduce disease-causing bacteria. You should also have their dentures fit-tested regularly—chronic jawbone loss, something dentures can't prevent, can loosen denture fit over time. Their dentures may need to be relined or eventually replaced to ensure continuing proper fit and function.
Osteoporosis. This common disease in older people weakens bone structure. It's often treated with bisphosphonates, a class of drugs that while slowing the effects of osteoporosis can cause complications after certain dental procedures. It's a good idea, then, for an older person to undergo any needed dental work before they go on osteoporosis medication.
Keep alert also for any signs of dental disease like unusual spots on the teeth or swollen or bleeding gums. Visiting the dentist for these and regular dental cleanings, checkups and oral cancer screenings could prevent many teeth and gum problems.
If you would like more information on senior dental care, 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 “Aging & Dental Health.”
Basketball isn't a contact sport—right? Maybe once upon a time that was true… but today, not so much. Just ask New York Knicks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. While scrambling for a loose ball in a recent game, Smith's mouth took a hit from an opposing player's elbow—and he came up missing a big part of his front tooth. It's a type of injury that has become common in this fast-paced game.
Research shows that when it comes to dental damage, basketball is a leader in the field. In fact, one study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) found that intercollegiate athletes who play basketball suffered a rate of dental injuries several times higher than those who played baseball, volleyball or track—even football!
Part of the problem is the nature of the game: With ten fast-moving players competing for space on a small court, collisions are bound to occur. Yet football requires even closer and more aggressive contact. Why don't football players suffer as many orofacial (mouth and face) injuries?
The answer is protective gear. While football players are generally required to wear helmets and mouth guards, hoopsters are not. And, with a few notable exceptions (like Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry), most don't—which is an unfortunate choice.
Yes, modern dentistry offers many different options for a great-looking, long lasting tooth restoration or replacement. Based on each individual's situation, it's certainly possible to restore a damaged tooth via cosmetic bonding, veneers, bridgework, crowns, or dental implants. But depending on what's needed, these treatments may involve considerable time and expense. It's better to prevent dental injuries before they happen—and the best way to do that is with a custom-made mouthguard.
Here at the dental office we can provide a high-quality mouthguard that's fabricated from an exact model of your mouth, so it fits perfectly. Custom-made mouthguards offer effective protection against injury and are the most comfortable to wear; that's vital, because if you don't wear a mouthguard, it's not helping. Those "off-the-rack" or "boil-and-bite" mouthguards just can't offer the same level of comfort and protection as one that's designed and made just for you.
Do mouthguards really work? The same JADA study mentioned above found that when basketball players were required to wear mouthguards, the injury rate was cut by more than half! So if you (or your children) love to play basketball—or baseball—or any sport where there's a danger of orofacial injury—a custom-made mouthguard is a good investment in your smile's future.
If you would like more information about custom-made athletic mouthguards, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Athletic Mouthguards” and “An Introduction to Sports Injuries & Dentistry.”
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