What is a Dental Hygienist?
A dental hygienist is a member of your community’s health care team. They are concerned with the preventative care and maintenance of your teeth and gums and can diagnose and treat a number of oral health conditions. A day in the life of one of Alberta’s 3300 dental hygienists could include:
- patient preparation, capture, and development of oral x-rays
- assessing patient oral health and risk factors
- performing oral cancer checks
- scaling, polishing, and application of fluoride treatments
- cleaning and care for dental restorations and prostheses
- performing emergency or temporary dental care
- performing tooth whitening therapy
- applying dental sealants for cavity prevention
- (with specialized training and oversight) administration of nitrous oxide, dental appliance fitting and cavity restoration
Registered dental hygienists are primarily concerned with routine tooth cleaning and may work alongside dentists or in independent practice.
Dental Hygiene and Your Systemic Health
Science is always learning more about the relationship between oral hygiene and the overall condition of your systemic health. In particular, periodontal disease has been associated with a number of health issues.
What is Periodontal Disease?
Periodontal disease, or gum disease, refers to infected tissues of the gums, ligaments, and bone that provide structural support to the teeth. The earliest sign of gum disease is redness and bleeding around the gums during daily brushing and flossing routines.
Gum disease is caused by an overgrowth of plaque bacteria in the mouth. Plaque is the clear and sticky film that develops along teeth and gums. While most plaque can be effectively removed with good oral hygiene habits, including brushing a minimum of twice daily and flossing at least once. Without proper cleaning, plaque deposits on teeth begins to harden along the meeting of the tooth and gum. This plaque attacks the protective enamel on the tooth, increasing the risk of decay. Left for too long, plaque bacteria begin to calcify along the base of teeth, resulting in what your dental hygienist will refer to as tartar.
Once tartar has calcified, it can no longer be effectively removed by your toothbrush. The hardened substance can cause the tissues of the gums to become inflamed and may begin to pull away from the tooth root. Roots of teeth require structural support offered by bones and ligaments around the tooth, but without proper oral care, these structures become infected leading to larger health concerns like tooth loss, diabetes, and heart disease.
Diabetes and Your Oral Health
Science is getting closer to understanding the link between periodontal disease and diabetes. There is evidence to support that diabetic patients are more likely to be affected by advanced periodontal disease and tooth loss. In fact, the inflammation caused by periodontal disease may further deplete a diabetic patient’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels. The correlation between gum disease and diabetes is further complicated by the fact that the two can become locked in a vicious circle.
Periodontal disease relies upon sugars in the mouth being present. Diabetic patients whose blood sugar levels are elevated will have a more difficult time controlling sugar-reliant gum disease. The good news is that controlling blood sugar levels is likely to have a positive impact on the severity of gum disease.
Heart Disease and Stroke
If you’ve ever injured your mouth, you know how vascular the oral cavity is. Blood vessels in the mouth carry nutrients for teeth and can become ‘hard’ which refers to a condition in which blood vessels are inflamed. Periodontal disease is characterized, in its most severe forms, as infection and inflammation below the gum line. When the infection reaches the blood vessels, bacteria can be sent around the body through the blood – and possibly to the heart.
The relationship between certain types of strokes and periodontal disease suggests that inflammation of the arteries that direct blood to the brain can be negatively impacted by the level of inflammation. Inflammation can cause an artery to become blocked, putting the brain at increased risk of stroke.
A Hygienist’s Role
Dental hygienists are well versed in the identification and treatment of periodontal disease and make a career of supporting their patient’s oral health needs. Don’t wait until you have symptomatic presentations of gum disease to see your hygienist! Regular cleanings and checkups are preventative measures that you can take to guard against gum disease and the systemic health risks associated with it. Your family can benefit from the hygienist’s ability to educate and inform children and adults of all ages about how to care for teeth and why it matters. Your dental hygienist takes care to participate in ongoing professional development to support their ability to provide the most up-to-date patient education and professional practices.
A dental hygienist plays a critical role in your overall health care team. Is it time for your regular dental check-up and cleaning?