"Dental disease can affect your entire body and immune system," says Dr. William B. Perkinson III, of Dr. Baxter Perkinson and Associates. Photo by Sarah Walor
Cynthia Johnson might not have discovered her allergy to nickel if she hadn't talked with her dentist, Dr. Cheryl Billingsley, about her health during a dental exam. "My knee was swollen and painful," the Chesterfield County woman says, noting she was using a wheelchair and walker because of the swelling. "My body was going in a tailspin."
Johnson had undergone a knee replacement a few months before her dental visit, and the device that was used contained a small amount of nickel. Billingsley, a cosmetic and family dentist practicing with biocompatible materials, suspected that Johnson had a sensitivity to nickel and that her body was reacting to the knee replacement. Billingsley, whose practice is on Ridgefield Parkway, ordered an orthopedic panel test, which proved Johnson was being affected by the nickel.
Johnson's condition is not one that typically would be diagnosed during a dental exam, but dentists like Billingsley are always looking for problems that could affect a patient's overall health.
Regular dental exams not only help to decrease a patient's risk of oral problems such as periodontal (gum) disease, they may also help to diagnose potentially life-threatening medical conditions. Diabetes, cancer and eating disorders often "manifest as signs and symptoms inside of the mouth," Billingsley says.
"What we eat and how we take care of our teeth directly impacts our overall health," says Dr. Sarah Dowdy, a dentist with E. Davey King and Associates in Henrico County.
Bad bacteria in the mouth can cause cavities and gum disease, a chronic infection of the bone and gums. "More studies are coming out linking chronic inflammation in one area of your body with other systemic diseases, including heart disease," says Dr. William B. Perkinson III, of Dr. Baxter Perkinson & Associates. "People with advanced periodontal disease are much more likely to be diabetic, and having gum disease makes it much more difficult for diabetics to control their blood-sugar levels."
Gum disease is the major cause of about 70 percent of adult tooth loss. Pregnant women with gum disease also may be more likely to have babies born too early or too small, according to the American Academy of Periodontology. "If you remove the plaque, you minimize the chance for getting gum disease," Billingsley says.
Anyone who uses tobacco products, drinks alcohol or has routine sun exposure should have regular dental check-ups. "Tobacco in combination with alcohol greatly increases the risk of developing cancer," says Dowdy, who regularly asks patients if they have experienced any health changes or have started any new medications. She looks for bleeding or swollen gums, discolorations of the gums, tissue irritations, growths or changes, dry mouth or enamel wear and erosion. "[Spotting those signs] may aid in the diagnosis of an underlying medical condition," she says.
Dental X-rays can aid in the detection of progressive bone loss around the teeth, the result of gum disease, as well as some cancers of the jawbone. "Detecting them early greatly improves their prognosis," Perkinson says, adding that dentists can notice other problems such as sleep apnea during an exam.
Johnson, who had her first knee device replaced and is now walking and feeling much better, credits Billingsley with helping to restore her good health. "[She] is the one who got me my life back."