What Happens During a Dental Exam?
Regular dental exams play an essential role in keeping your teeth and gums healthy, but millions of people in the U.S. never see a dentist from year to year.
Routine dental visits can detect problems early when treatment is likely to be more effective, simpler, and less costly. They can also prevent many potential issues from developing in the first place.
Another reason why dental exams are a good idea is that certain serious medical conditions can show symptoms in your mouth you may not be aware of. Dental issues may also be a symptom- and pain-free, especially during the early stages. Y
our dentist will be able to spot problems like these. This is why dental exams are important even if you have no apparent symptoms. However, many people appear to have little idea of exactly what happens during a dental exam. Well, there’s a lot more to it than just taking a quick look at your teeth.
Checking Your Overall Health
If it’s your first appointment at a particular practice, the dentist will ask you about your medical history. If a dentist has examined you before, they will want to know whether there have been any changes in your overall health.
An insight into any medical conditions, treatment, and medication is important for your dentist to ensure no complications during dental treatment. Your medical history will also be an important factor for your dentist as they proceed with your check-up.
Examining Your Teeth, Gums, and Jaw
Dentists use a metal probe with an angled mirror to see behind and between your teeth and check for warning signs of cavities – softening of enamel and dentin. Enamel is the hard surface of a tooth that protects the underlying dentin, which, in turn, shields the pulp in the center of the tooth.
A routine dental exam also checks for indications of problems with the gums, such as swelling, redness, or sores. Your dentist will also measure the periodontal pockets – the spaces between the top of the gum line and where the soft tissue secures a tooth in place. Periodontal pockets deeper than three millimeters may be a sign of gum disease (periodontitis).
The dentist will feel your jawbones while you bite down, to make sure your bite is aligned and there’s no clicking from the joints. They will also look for signs of jaw clenching, such as worn grooves of the teeth.
Checking for Cancer
Initial stages of oral cancer may not be noticed by the individual, so your dentist will be on the lookout for signs of mouth or throat cancer. These warning signs include lesions, sores or ulcers, unexplained bleeding, and blocked salivary glands.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 51,500 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed in 2018 with oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer (affecting the throat at the back of the mouth, behind the oral cavity). These cancers are twice as common in men. The survival rate for cancer is good when the condition is diagnosed early.
Checking for Diabetes
Gum infection and bad breath (halitosis) can indicate diabetes. Diabetics are prone to gum problems because they’re less able to fight off bacteria, including those in the mouth. Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which occurs because of insufficient insulin, can lead to a sweet, fruity odor on the breath. A further oral indication of diabetes is bone loss.
X-rays allow your dentist to detect any problems not visible to the naked eye – below the surface of the teeth and gums. Thanks to modern technology, dental X-rays are safer than ever. Digital X-rays have largely replaced the old film versions in many dental offices. They give off 80 to 90 percent less radiation than traditional film X-ray equipment.
X-rays are indispensable in spotting issues such as jaw and tooth root problems, and gum infections including gingivitis. Detection of these issues at an early stage is vital for effective treatment.
Professional Cleaning and Polishing
A dental exam typically includes a thorough cleaning by a dental hygienist or dentist. They will remove any plaque and tartar deposits by scraping above and below the gum line and flossing your teeth. A survey in 2006 indicated that flossing by a professional was far more effective than flossing at home, decreasing the risk of tooth decay by 40 percent.
The cleaning process ends with the use of a spinning polisher, with a mildly abrasive head, to give your teeth a shiny, smooth finish, and to get rid of any residues of plaque, tartar and food particles previously missed. Making your teeth smoother isn’t just for cosmetic purposes: it makes it more difficult for plaque to latch on to them between dental visits.
Long-Term Benefits of a Regular Dental Exam
Continuity of dental care is necessary to keep your teeth and gums strong and healthy, but, according to the MouthHealthy consumer platform of the American Dental Association (ADA), 100 million people in the U.S. fail to see a dentist each year.
Regular dental exams not only help to safeguard the health of your mouth but can also reveal signs of problems in other areas of the body because many medical conditions can affect your mouth.
How often you should have a dental exam can only be determined by your dentist. Some patients need to visit the dentist once or twice a year, while others – those diagnosed with diabetes, for instance – will need more visits.
A regular dental exam also gives your dentist the opportunity to remind you about the best ways to practice oral healthcare at home and to assess whether you could benefit from fluoride applications.
Even if you no longer have your natural teeth, regular dental visits are important to maintain your oral health and the effectiveness of replacement teeth.
Besides regular dental check-ups, the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP) recommends that all adults should have a comprehensive periodontal evaluation (CPE) to identify any signs of gum disease and enable early intervention.