Most people visit their dentist at least twice a year – which is a rate greater than they see their regular physicians. As a result, dentists usually are the first to notice or diagnose serious medical conditions in their patients. Whether by examination, observation or just listening to patient’s health history, dentists frequently identify situations that may require a second look and help patients access medical specialists for treatment. One such situation is patients with osteoporosis, a degenerative bone condition that plagues millions of men and women in the United States.
Bone cells are always being shed and created. Osteoporosis occurs when old cells are shed, but new cell production is slowed or completely stops. As a result, bones become less dense and weaken. Patients with osteoporosis frequently experience a high rate of fractures, from falls or even from the weight of their own body collapsing their bones. Osteoporosis is painful for some patients and impacts many individual’s quality of life. The bone condition usually affects patients over the age of 50, and the majority of those affected by osteoporosis are women, but the disease can strike at any age and impact men as well.
Dentists often uncover signs of osteoporosis during a regular dental checkup. Clues of osteoporosis include bone loss in the jaw. Bone loss in the jaw may indicate the patient has experienced bone loss in other parts of the body. When bone mass is lost in the jaw, this prevents some dental therapies, such as dental implants from taking place. Tooth loss is another indicator of osteoporosis and that the patient has low bone mineral density, as osteoporosis patients lose teeth at a higher rate than average patients. Receding gums and loss of gum tissue also indicates a problem, and many women with osteoporosis experience problems with dentures not fitting properly.
In fact, Centers for Disease Control studies show that women with osteoporosis need new dentures at a rate three times greater than their counterparts who do not have osteoporosis. Many patients with dentures and jaw bone loss experience denture fitting problems that affect the patient’s ability to chew – which puts them at risk of malnutrition. Ill-fitting dentures rub against the gums, causing painful sores and even gum infections. These sores and infections discourage patients from eating certain foods, once again putting the patient at risk for malnutrition.|
“Osteoporosis is not just a condition that impacts the hips or spine,” says Dr. Stefania Caracioni, D.D.S, L.V.I.F. “It impacts anywhere where there is bone, like the jaw.” When patients experience bone loss or tooth loss, serious things start to happen. “Speech and the ability to swallow are impacted,” explains Caracioni. The patient’s appearance also changes as a result of this tissue loss, and they may appear to have a sunken or skeletal look.
Osteoporosis is not the only disease that dentists are able to detect. Many other conditions, like diabetes, show signs in the mouth, such as swollen or receding gums.
“Because many patients see their dentist more frequently that they see their doctor, it is vital to both their oral and total health that they give the dentist health history, as well as mention any symptoms they are having,” says Caracioni.
Caracioni says that if a patient is suspected to have osteoporosis, the dentist will make a referral to a specialist for diagnosis and treatment. In addition to making and keeping regular dental checkups, the risk of osteoporosis lowers when patients add vitamin D to their diet, through food or supplement. Exercise, calcium and reducing caffeine consumption also lower the risk of developing osteoporosis.
“Dentists are not just oral health experts, they are also experts how total health and oral health are connected,” says Caracioni.