Posts for: December, 2019
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.
As the host of America's Funniest Home Videos on ABC TV, Alfonso Ribeiro has witnessed plenty of unintentional physical comedy…or, as he puts it in an interview with Dear Doctor–Dentistry & Oral Health magazine, "When people do stuff and you're like, 'Dude, you just hurt yourself for no reason!'" So when he had his own dental dilemma, Alfonso was determined not to let it turn onto an "epic fail."
The television personality was in his thirties when a painful tooth infection flared up. Instead of ignoring the problem, he took care of it by visiting his dentist, who recommended a root canal procedure. "It's not like you wake up and go, 'Yay, I'm going to have my root canal today!'" he joked. "But once it's done, you couldn't be happier because the pain is gone and you're just smiling because you're no longer in pain!"
Alfonso's experience echoes that of many other people. The root canal procedure is designed to save an infected tooth that otherwise would probably be lost. The infection may start when harmful bacteria from the mouth create a small hole (called a cavity) in the tooth's surface. If left untreated, the decay bacteria continue to eat away at the tooth's structure. Eventually, they can reach the soft pulp tissue, which extends through branching spaces deep inside the tooth called root canals.
Once infection gets a foothold there, it's time for root canal treatment! In this procedure, the area is first numbed; next, a small hole is made in the tooth to give access to the pulp, which contains nerves and blood vessels. The diseased tissue is then carefully removed with tiny instruments, and the canals are disinfected to prevent bacteria from spreading. Finally, the tooth is sealed up to prevent re-infection. Following treatment, a crown (cap) is usually required to restore the tooth's full function and appearance.
Root canal treatment sometimes gets a bad rap from people who are unfamiliar with it, or have come across misinformation on the internet. The truth is, a root canal doesn't cause pain: It relieves pain! The alternatives—having the tooth pulled or leaving the infection untreated—are often much worse.
Having a tooth extracted and replaced can be costly and time consuming…yet a missing tooth that isn't replaced can cause problems for your oral health, nutrition and self-esteem. And an untreated infection doesn't just go away on its own—it continues to smolder in your body, potentially causing serious problems. So if you need a root canal, don't delay!
If you would like additional information on root canal treatment, please contact us or schedule a consultation. You can learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “A Step-By-Step Guide to Root Canal Treatment” and “Root Canal Treatment: What You Need to Know.”
Periodontal disease may start in the gums’ superficial layers, but it’s not likely to stay there. As the disease moves deeper it can wreak havoc on tooth roots and bone as well as gum tissue attachments. Teeth with multiple roots are in particular peril because of the “forks” called furcations that form where the roots separate from each other. Infected furcations can be very difficult to treat.
We primarily treat gum disease by removing its main source, a thin film of bacteria and food particles called dental plaque that builds up on teeth. To remove it we most often use special hand tools or ultrasonic equipment to vibrate it loose. As the plaque and tartar diminish, the infection begins to wane.
But we can’t be completely successful in stopping the disease if any lingering plaque deposits remain. This especially includes furcations where the infection can cause significant damage to the roots. Although cleaning furcations of plaque can be difficult, it’s not impossible with the aforementioned tools and antimicrobial substances to disinfect the area.
The real problem, though, is access—effectively getting to the furcations to treat them. We may need to perform a surgical procedure called flap surgery where we create a hinged flap in the gum tissue to move it aside and access the root area beneath. Afterward we replace the flap and suture the tissue back in place.
In some cases, the infection may have already caused significant damage to the tissue and underlying bone. We may therefore need to graft gum or bone tissues to these damaged areas to stimulate re-growth. We may also need to surgically reshape the gum attachments around a tooth to make it easier in the future to access and clean the area.
These additional treatments around furcations can be very involved and labor-intensive. That’s why the best outcomes occur if we’re able to start treatment in the early stages of an infection. So, if you notice red, swollen or bleeding gums contact your dentist as soon as possible. Treating gum disease as early as possible will help ensure your tooth roots won’t suffer extensive damage.
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? Branching Tooth Roots can be Periodontal Nightmares.”