Understanding Periodontitis

We know that it can be hard for patients to take in everything they hear from a doctor during a visit.  You may remember bits and pieces without understanding the whole.  This is especially true when we use scientific terminology without explaining what it means.  If you hear the term “periodontitis” and are not really sure what it means, then this article is for you.

What is Periodontitis?

Periodontitis is another word for periodontal disease or gum disease.  It is the official scientific term, which we can break down into three roots to describe its meaning.  “Perio-“ means around.  The second root “-odont” means tooth, and the suffix “-itis” means inflammation.  So we can put those together to define periodontitis as inflammation around a tooth.

More specifically, periodontitis is a progressively worsening inflammatory disease of the supporting structures surrounding the teeth.  This includes the gum tissues, the underlying jawbone, and the tiny ligament that connects them.  As the disease progresses, the teeth lose more and more support, and in severe cases, teeth become loose and fall out.

What Causes Periodontitis?

The primary cause of periodontitis is always dental plaque.  This is because plaque contains disease-causing bacteria.  These bacteria proliferate in large clumps of plaque and produce toxins that penetrate the surrounding gum tissues.

When the body detects these toxic chemicals in the gums, it counter-attacks by sending an inflammatory response. While this inflammation does attack the bacteria, over time, it will also attack the gum and bone.  Chronic inflammation in the periodontal tissues breaks their attachment to the tooth’s root.

This loss of attachment is detectable in its early stages by your dentist or dental hygienist through detailed gum measurements.   As it worsens, it will start to show up on dental x-rays as a gap between the teeth roots and the surrounding jawbone.

This disease gets progressively worse because the bacteria begin to collect deep beneath the gums in “pockets” where you cannot reach to clean.  When left untreated, the plaque buildup mineralizes (hardens) into tartar, also called calculus, which is impossible to remove with a toothbrush or floss.  It requires specialized dental instruments for removal.

Why is Periodontitis a Big Deal?

There are two major problems with periodontitis.  The first is that periodontitis is a “silent disease”.  This means that it does not cause many noticeable symptoms, and most patients are completely unaware that a problem is brewing.  Periodontitis typically does not hurt.  Because it gets progressively worse without dental intervention, many people can go years without knowing they have a problem in losing attachment around their teeth.  If regular dental visits are not part of someone’s routine, they might not know there is anything going wrong until a tooth is loose or painful.  By then, the disease may have already reached severe stages.

The second reason periodontitis is a big deal is its connection to other health problems.  The mouth is the gateway to the body, and a chronic infectious disease in the mouth will affect other parts of the human body.  Many scientific research studies link chronic periodontal disease with diabetes, cardiovascular disease (including heart attacks and strokes), and even Alzheimer’s disease.  People with chronic gum disease have a much higher risk for these diseases than people with healthy mouths have.

What Can You Do About Periodontitis?

Periodontitis is not a disease you can treat on your own.  It takes cooperation between you and your dentist.  Your dentist is responsible for identifying and correctly diagnosing the disease using detailed measurements and x-rays.  Once diagnosed, he or she will recommend the appropriate treatment, which often includes a few phases.  The first phase is always removal of all of the bacterial buildup from the teeth.  You may hear this referred to as a “deep cleaning”.  The dentist or dental hygienist will use specialized instruments to clean the teeth, including the roots underneath the gums, and leave a bacteria-free surface to promote re-attachment.

Depending on the severity of the gum disease, treatment may also involve a surgical phase.  Surgeries to treat gum disease include gum and bone grafting, recontouring of the existing bone and gums, and moving the gum tissues into better positions on the teeth.

Another essential phase of gum disease treatment is the maintenance phase.  Once you undergo the initial treatment, you must remain committed to maintaining the health of your gums.  Patients with severe gum disease must see the dental hygienist and dentist more frequently than patients with healthy gums must.  This means going for professional teeth cleanings a minimum of four times a year (sometimes more!) instead of twice.

At home, your job is to consistently perform great oral hygiene.  You must use effective brushing techniques, as directed by your dentist or dental hygienist.  We often recommend electric toothbrushes for better plaque removal.

And you absolutely must floss every single day.  Flossing is the only way to effectively remove dental plaque from between the teeth.  When you skip flossing, you are missing about 35% of the surfaces of the teeth.  This means you leave that dangerous bacteria on the teeth to re-ignite the disease process all over again.

Can You Prevent Periodontitis?

Yes!

Periodontal disease is 100% preventable.  Because the primary cause is dental plaque, you can prevent it by consistently cleaning all plaque from your teeth and gums.  This takes both great home care and consistent dental visits.

At home, you are responsible for removing the daily accumulation of dental plaque that builds up on the teeth.  When you are not consistent with good oral hygiene at home, you allow more plaque buildup.  Over time, that plaque hardens into tartar, which you cannot remove.

At the dentist, you should undergo consistent professional teeth cleanings.  During a professional teeth cleaning, your dental hygienist removes all bacterial buildup from the teeth and gums, including both plaque and tartar.  At each of these visits, you are given a “clean slate”.  As you improve your home care, you will notice that your professional teeth cleanings become easier and more comfortable.  As you keep up with consistent dental visits, you will learn information on how to take better care of your teeth and gums at home.  It takes both home care and professional care to prevent periodontitis.

More Questions about Periodontitis?

Call your nearest Premier Dental of Ohio location to schedule a consultation with one of our excellent dentists.  We can assess your current situation, help you prevent gum disease or treat any active gum disease you may have.