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Dental Scaling and Root Planning

Updated on December 14, 2011

You May Have to Power Wash More than Your Deck

I’ve always been exceedingly vain about my teeth. Even though I’ve been addicted to pearly white-destroying coffee and cigarettes since high school, I’ve still managed keep my teeth reasonably healthy, white, and shapely. I figured since I brushed twice a day, used mouthwash daily, flossed at least twice a week, used white strips, and saw the dentist regularly to get all necessary fillings and crowns that I had things pretty much covered. Right?

A few years ago the dentist said I was in the early stages of periodontal disease and needed something called dental scaling and root planning, which essentially involves someone wearing a mask flipping back your gums and power washing and scraping the roots of your teeth. I politely declined their suggestion, figuring it was (even though I liked and trusted my dentist) just a way for them to get more money out of me. And besides, it sounded disgusting. I’d never had any obvious problems like pain or bleeding gums, so I blew it off for another year.

At my next appointment for an exam and cleaning, they told me my gum disease/infection had gotten to the more serious stages, where the “pockets” between the gums and teeth were getting pretty deep and my gum line was receding. “Receding gums” was all I needed to hear. If you’ve ever seen an older person with inch-long teeth because their gum line starts somewhere around their nostrils, you know what I’m talking about. The kind of teeth you see on a person and think, “Why don’t they do something about that? Ugh!” Or have you ever seen any of the chompers of the people in those Faces of Meth slide shows? The blackened and rotten teeth aside, the fact that their teeth are usually dangling by the roots is enough to make you run out and buy $200 worth of dental supplies.

In any case, I didn’t want to become one of those people that smiles and makes people uncomfortable. Hell, my teeth were one of my last truly becoming features, and I aimed to keep them at their original length and firmly rooted. So I made the appointments. I say appointments plural, because the degree of plaque and stain under the gum line was apparently pretty severe and, therefore, the treatment had to be done in four sessions, one for each quadrant.

I won’t sugarcoat it; it sucked. While they did administer Novocain, the psychological effect from the knowledge of what they were doing was pretty profound. And it was really, really bloody. And when the numbness wore off, I could well and truly feel that they’d sandblasted, scraped, and sprayed antibiotic agents on parts of my mouth never intended to see daylight. I had to go back to work covered in splattered plaque, blood, and sand all over my clothes and face. The whole thing cost about $400 with insurance. I do not wish to do that ever again.

Granted, I’d been relatively spoiled, dentally speaking. I never needed braces or any other gnarly orthodontia or procedures as a child. My wisdom teeth never gave me any problems, and I still have all four of them. I’ve never (knock on wood) had a root canal. Fillings and crowns aren’t any fun, per se, but compared to planning and scaling, it was like eyebrow plucking versus childbirth.

My dentist told me that most adults have some degree of gingivitis/periodontal disease/oral infection. It magically goes away with some people, remains at a stable but minor degree for others, and the rest of us have problems. When the bacteria near the gum line start getting jiggy and reproducing very quickly, it can develop into gum disease, which eventually breaks down the basic bone structure of the teeth, eventually making them loose. The gum tissue continues to deteriorate, forming deep pockets between the teeth and gums, and pretty soon you’ve got a petri dish in there.

Something else to chew on; while they haven’t proven anything, it would appear there is a strong link between gum disease and heart disease. Studies have shown that people with heart disease often have periodontal disease and vice versa. Doctors have a theory that the oral bacteria enter the bloodstream and then go to town, attaching to the fatty plaque in the arteries and causing blood clots. Ew. Again, last I checked, this isn’t written in stone, but it’s out there.

So what are the biggest causes of periodontal disease? Yes, Mom – smoking is a big one. Duly noted. Antihistamines and some other medications are another, as they decrease saliva production, and oral bacteria love a dry mouth. Oral injury is another. Most of us brush our teeth too hard, making little nicks in our gums that invite the creepy crawlies to set up shop. People who grind their teeth also produce dental stress. And speaking of stress, those routinely under heavy stress loads often have weakened immune systems, making it harder to fight off those marauding microbes. And good old genetics beating some unlucky folks with the gingivitis stick is another factor.

Mathematically speaking, it would be a miracle of science if I didn’t get gum disease, as I possess each and every aforementioned factor. Regardless of what I thought was a usually minty fresh mouth due to my perceived above-average dental hygiene, I was hosed.

I see the dentist twice a year, and my checkups have been good for the last 3 or 4 years since the planning and scaling. But it takes work. Since I have about the equivalent of a brand new Audi in my mouth, I will do whatever it takes to never have to do that again. Below are a few things you can do, starting today, to help prevent gum disease:

· Do whatever you need to do in lieu of saving money and time to see your dentist for an appointment. Get checked specifically for periodontal disease/gingivitis.

· Invest in a WaterPik. A low-end one is usually in the ballpark of $50, and lasts about a year. Keep it charged (mine requires a 12-hour charge about every two weeks), and use at least once a day.

· Get an electric toothbrush. You do not have to spring for some expensive and space-consuming contraption. A Spinbrush costs about $8, and is easy and cheap to maintain with replacement heads and AA batteries.

· Take your time when you brush. Make sure you’re brushing the front and back of all your teeth, as well as your gum line.

· If you absolutely, positively, for whatever reason, will not use an electric toothbrush, make sure you’re using a SOFT regular toothbrush, and brush for at least a full 5 minutes at least twice a day. And don’t brush too hard. This is another reason to get an electric, as most of us brush way too fast and way too hard, not doing a proper job at removing plaque and simultaneously wearing off our enamel.

· Use mouthwash that does not contain alcohol. Alcohol dries out your mouth, and bacteria love a dry mouth. The non-alcohol kind is more expensive and occasionally harder to find, but it’s worth it in the long run.

· Even with all this, you still need to floss every day. Floss is truly the only way to remove the stuff between your teeth, especially if you have teeth that are really close together. I like Glide brand, waxed and mint flavored. I know a lot of dentists say you should use unwaxed, but the texture of that stuff gives me the heebies.

Yes, sometimes I spent about 20 minutes at night caring for teeth, but it’s better than untold hours and dollars spent in the dentist’s chair. And a whole lot better than having to get dentures or dental implants. It’s a sad fact of life: the older we become, the more time consuming and arduous the bodily maintenance becomes. But don’t go down without a fight.

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