Like other healthcare providers, dentists have relied for decades on the strong pain relief of opioid (narcotic) drugs for patients after dental work. As late as 2012, doctors and dentists wrote over 250 million prescriptions for these drugs. Since then, though, those numbers have shrunk drastically.
That’s because while effective, drugs like morphine, oxycodone or fentanyl are highly addictive. While those trapped in a narcotic addiction can obtain drugs like heroine illicitly, a high number come from prescriptions that have been issued too liberally. This and other factors have helped contribute to a nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction involving an estimated 2 million Americans and thousands of deaths each year.
Because three-quarters of opioid abusers began their addiction with prescription pain medication, there’s been a great deal of re-thinking about how we manage post-procedural pain, especially in dentistry. As a result, we’re seeing a shift to a different strategy: using a combination of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), particularly ibuprofen and acetaminophen, instead of a prescribed narcotic.
These over-the-counter drugs are safer and less costly; more importantly, though, they don’t have the high addictive quality of an opioid drug. A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) showed that when two NSAIDs were used together, the pain relief was greater than either drug used individually, and better than some opioid medications.
That’s not to say dentists no longer prescribe opioids for pain management following dental work. But the growing consensus among dental providers is to rely on the double NSAID approach as their first-line therapy. If a patient has other medical conditions or the NSAIDs prove ineffective, then the dentist can prescribe an opioid instead.
There’s often hesitancy among dental patients on going this new route rather than the tried and true opioid prescription. That’s why it’s important to discuss the matter with your dentist before any procedure to see which way is best for you. Just like you, your dentist wants your treatment experience to be as pain-free as possible, in the safest manner possible.
As permanent teeth gradually replace primary (“baby”) teeth, most will come in by early adolescence. But the back third molars—the wisdom teeth—are often the last to the party, usually erupting between ages 18 and 24, and the source of possible problems.
This is because the wisdom teeth often erupt on an already crowded jaw populated by other teeth. As a result, they can be impacted, meaning they may erupt partially or not at all and remain largely below the gum surface.
An impacted tooth can impinge on its neighboring teeth and damage their roots or disrupt their protective gum attachment, all of which makes them more susceptible to tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease. Impacted teeth can also foster the formation of infected cysts that create areas of bone loss or painful infections in the gums of other teeth.
Even when symptoms like these aren’t present, many dentists recommend removing the wisdom teeth as a preemptive measure against future problems or disease. This often requires a surgical extraction: in fact, wisdom teeth removal is the most common oral surgical procedure.
But now there’s a growing consensus among dentists that removing or not removing wisdom teeth should depend on an individual’s unique circumstances. Patients who are having adverse oral health effects from impacted wisdom teeth should consider removing them, especially if they’ve already encountered dental disease. But the extraction decision isn’t as easy for patients with no current signs of either impaction or disease. That doesn’t mean their situation won’t change in the future.
One way to manage all these potentialities is a strategy called active surveillance. With this approach, patient and dentist keep a close eye on wisdom teeth development and possible signs of impaction or disease. Most dentists recommend carefully examining the wisdom teeth (including diagnostic x-rays and other imaging) every 24 months.
Following this strategy doesn’t mean the patient won’t eventually have their wisdom teeth removed, but not until there are clearer signs of trouble. But whatever the outcome might be, dealing properly with wisdom teeth is a high priority for preventing future oral health problems.
If you would like more information on wisdom teeth and their potential impact on dental health, 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 “Wisdom Teeth: Coming of Age May Come with a Dilemma.”
With smart phone in hand, you can instantaneously find out just about anything. Unfortunately, online search results aren’t always accurate. Case in point: there’s an idea floating on the World Wide Web that root canal treatments cause cancer.
Sounds ludicrous? Yes, but like other strange ideas this one has historical roots (pardon the pun). In the early 20th Century, a dentist named Weston Price propagated the idea that leaving a “dead” organ in the body caused health problems. By his view, a root canal-treated tooth fell into this category and could potentially cause, among other things, cancer.
But concern over root canal treatment safety is on shaky ground: dentistry examined Dr. Price’s ideas over sixty years ago and found them wanting. But first, let’s look at what a root canal treatment can actually do for your health.
Tooth decay is an infection that first attacks the outer tooth enamel and then continues to advance until it infects the inner pulp. It can then travel through the root canals to the roots and bone. Without intervention, the infection will result in tooth loss.
We use a root canal treatment to save the tooth from this fate. During the procedure we remove and disinfect all of the diseased or dead tissue within the pulp and root canals. We then fill the empty chamber and canals with a special filling and seal the tooth to prevent any further infection. And while technically the procedure renders a tooth unable to respond to thermal sensitivity or tooth decay, the tooth is still alive as it is attached to the periodontal ligament and its blood supply and nerve tissue. The tooth can still “feel” if you bite on something too hard and it doesn’t affect the tooth’s function or health, or a patient’s overall health for that matter.
As to Dr. Price’s theory, extensive studies beginning in the 1950s have examined the potential health risk of root canal treatments. The latest, a 2013 patient survey study published in a journal of the American Medical Association, not only found no evidence linking root canal treatment to cancer, but a lower risk of oral cancer in 45% of patients who had undergone multiple root canal treatments.
While root canal treatments do have potential side effects, none are remotely as serious as this online “factoid” about cancer. It’s far more likely to benefit your health by saving your tooth.
If you would like more information on root canal treatment, 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 “Root Canal Safety.”
The March 27th game started off pretty well for NBA star Kevin Love. His team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, were coming off a 5-game winning streak as they faced the Miami Heat that night. Less than two minutes into the contest, Love charged in for a shot on Heat center Jordan Mickey—but instead of a basket, he got an elbow in the face that sent him to the floor (and out of the game) with an injury to his mouth.
In pictures from the aftermath, Love’s front tooth seemed clearly out of position. According to the Cavs’ official statement, “Love suffered a front tooth subluxation.” But what exactly does that mean, and how serious is his injury?
The dental term “subluxation” refers to one specific type of luxation injury—a situation where a tooth has become loosened or displaced from its proper location. A subluxation is an injury to tooth-supporting structures such as the periodontal ligament: a stretchy network of fibrous tissue that keeps the tooth in its socket. The affected tooth becomes abnormally loose, but as long as the nerves inside the tooth and the underlying bone have not been damaged, it generally has a favorable prognosis.
Treatment of a subluxation injury may involve correcting the tooth’s position immediately and/or stabilizing the tooth—often by temporarily splinting (joining) it to adjacent teeth—and maintaining a soft diet for a few weeks. This gives the injured tissues a chance to heal and helps the ligament regain proper attachment to the tooth. The condition of tooth’s pulp (soft inner tissue) must also be closely monitored; if it becomes infected, root canal treatment may be needed to preserve the tooth.
So while Kevin Love’s dental dilemma might have looked scary in the pictures, with proper care he has a good chance of keeping the tooth. Significantly, Love acknowledged on Twitter that the damage “…could have been so much worse if I wasn’t protected with [a] mouthguard.”
Love’s injury reminds us that whether they’re played at a big arena, a high school gym or an outdoor court, sports like basketball (as well as baseball, football and many others) have a high potential for facial injuries. That’s why all players should wear a mouthguard whenever they’re in the game. Custom-made mouthguards, available for a reasonable cost at the dental office, are the most comfortable to wear, and offer protection that’s superior to the kind available at big-box retailers.
If you have questions about dental injuries or custom-made mouthguards, please contact our office or schedule a consultation. You can read more in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “The Field-Side Guide to Dental Injuries” and “Athletic Mouthguards.”
Tooth decay is as relentless as it is destructive, and it makes little distinction between age, gender, ethnicity or social status. Although risk levels vary from person to person, we’re all potentially in the crossfire for this harmful disease. Getting ahead of it early could save your teeth.
Tooth decay begins with oral bacteria. While feeding on dental plaque that accumulates on the teeth, bacteria multiply and produce acid as a by-product. Too much acid softens and erodes tooth enamel, which enables decay to advance deeper into the tooth.
If it isn’t stopped, decay can eventually infect and weaken the roots and bone, and ultimately lead to a lost tooth. By stopping it as early as possible before it reaches the inner pulp and root canals, we can greatly limit the damage.
Regular dental care is crucial for early detection. Here’s how we can stay ahead of developing decay during dental visits.
Visible inspection. There are visible signs a trained dentist may notice that point to tooth decay. Besides an already formed hole or cavity, we might also pick up on other unusual appearances like white spot lesions: these slight blemishes often occur in the areas of contact with other teeth, which we can treat with topical fluoride.
X-rays. This tried and true diagnostic tool has been a mainstay of dental care for nearly a century. The images they produce can indicate decay as darker spots or areas on or within the tooth that may not yet be visible to the eye. And with advances in digital processing and more streamlined equipment, we can effectively do this with a very low dosage of radiation exposure.
Advanced technology. We’ve developed other means for better disease detection that complement x-rays and visual inspections. Specialized microscopes and lasers are now important tools for analyzing suspected areas of early decay.
Even if decay gets a foothold we can effectively stop it and restore a tooth with a root canal treatment or a similar procedure. The best outcome, though, is to not allow this destructive disease to get that far. With dedicated oral hygiene and regular dental visits that uncover early decay, chances are good your teeth can remain healthy for a lifetime.
If you would like more information on fighting tooth decay, 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 “Tooth Decay: How to Assess Your Risk.”
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