If we could go back in time, we all probably have a few things we wish we could change. Recently, Dr. Travis Stork, emergency room physician and host of the syndicated TV show The Doctors, shared one of his do-over dreams with Dear Doctor magazine: “If I [could have] gone back and told myself as a teenager what to do, I would have worn a mouthguard, not only to protect my teeth but also to help potentially reduce risk of concussion.”
What prompted this wish? The fact that as a teenage basketball player, Stork received an elbow to the mouth that caused his two front teeth to be knocked out of place. The teeth were put back in position, but they soon became darker and began to hurt. Eventually, both were successfully restored with dental crowns. Still, it was a painful (and costly) injury — and one that could have been avoided.
You might not realize it, but when it comes to dental injuries, basketball ranks among the riskier sports. Yet it’s far from the only one. In fact, according to the American Dental Association (ADA), there are some two dozen others — including baseball, hockey, surfing and bicycling — that carry a heightened risk of dental injury. Whenever you’re playing those sports, the ADA recommends you wear a high-quality mouth guard.
Mouthguards have come a long way since they were introduced as protective equipment for boxers in the early 1900’s. Today, three different types are widely available: stock “off-the-shelf” types that come in just a few sizes; mouth-formed “boil-and-bite” types that you adapt to the general contours of your mouth; and custom-made high-quality mouthguards that are made just for you at the dental office.
Of all three types, the dentist-made mouthguards are consistently found to be the most comfortable and best-fitting, and the ones that offer your teeth the greatest protection. What’s more, recent studies suggest that custom-fabricated mouthguards can provide an additional defense against concussion — in fact, they are twice as effective as the other types. That’s why you’ll see more and more professional athletes (and plenty of amateurs as well) sporting custom-made mouthguards at games and practices.
“I would have saved myself a lot of dental heartache if I had worn a mouthguard,” noted Dr. Stork. So take his advice: Wear a mouthguard whenever you play sports — unless you’d like to meet him (or one of his medical colleagues) in a professional capacity…
After ruling out other possibilities for your constant jaw joint pain, your doctor has diagnosed you with a temporomandibular disorder (TMD). Now that you know what you have, what can you do about it?
Unfortunately, it's not always an easy answer. Ideas about treatment are almost as numerous as theories on the causes of TMD. By and large, though, we can classify treatment into two broad categories: conservative and aggressive.
The conservative approach is the result of many years of experimentation and application; it's also much less invasive than aggressive treatments. For most patients, though, these treatments can offer significant relief from pain and dysfunction.
Conservative treatments are based primarily on the philosophy that the temporomandibular joint is like any other joint, and should be treated that way. Treatments include thermal therapies like ice or heat packs applied to the jaw, physical therapy (gentle stretching, jaw exercise, and massage) and pain and muscle relaxant medication. In cases where teeth grinding may be a contributing factor, we might recommend a bite guard worn in the mouth to reduce biting pressure.
On the other end of the spectrum are treatments like altering the bite or the position of the jaw. The purpose of bite alteration is to change the dynamic when the jaws are in contact during chewing or clenching, and reduce pressure on the joints. This is often done by reshaping the teeth's biting surfaces, moving the teeth with orthodontics or performing crown and bridgework. Another possibility, actually modifying the lower jaw location, requires surgery. All of these aggressive treatments are done in order of less to more invasiveness.
These more aggressive treatments, especially jaw surgery, are irreversible. Furthermore, studies on results have not been encouraging — there's no guarantee you'll receive relief from your symptoms. You should consider the aggressive approach only as a last resort, after you've tried more conservative measures. Even then, you should get a second opinion before undergoing more invasive procedures.
Hopefully, you'll see relief from therapies that have made a significant difference for most TMD sufferers. And that's our goal: to reduce your pain and dysfunction and help you regain your quality of life.
If you would like more information on TMD causes and treatments, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Seeking Relief from TMD.”
Did you see the move Cast Away starring Tom Hanks? If so, you probably remember the scene where Hanks, stranded on a remote island, knocks out his own abscessed tooth — with an ice skate, no less — to stop the pain. Recently, Dear Doctor TV interviewed Gary Archer, the dental technician who created that special effect and many others.
“They wanted to have an abscess above the tooth with all sorts of gunk and pus and stuff coming out of it,” Archer explained. “I met with Tom and I took impressions [of his mouth] and we came up with this wonderful little piece. It just slipped over his own natural teeth.” The actor could flick it out with his lower tooth when the time was right during the scene. It ended up looking so real that, as Archer said, “it was not for the easily squeamish!”
That’s for sure. But neither is a real abscess, which is an infection that becomes sealed off beneath the gum line. An abscess may result from a trapped piece of food, uncontrolled periodontal (gum) disease, or even an infection deep inside a tooth that has spread to adjacent periodontal tissues. In any case, the condition can cause intense pain due to the pressure that builds up in the pus-filled sac. Prompt treatment is required to relieve the pain, keep the infection from spreading to other areas of the face (or even elsewhere in the body), and prevent tooth loss.
Treatment involves draining the abscess, which usually stops the pain immediately, and then controlling the infection and removing its cause. This may require antibiotics and any of several in-office dental procedures, including gum surgery, a root canal, or a tooth extraction. But if you do have a tooth that can’t be saved, we promise we won’t remove it with an ice skate!
The best way to prevent an abscess from forming in the first place is to practice conscientious oral hygiene. By brushing your teeth twice each day for two minutes, and flossing at least once a day, you will go a long way towards keeping harmful oral bacteria from thriving in your mouth.
If you have any questions about gum disease or abscesses, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Periodontal (Gum) Abscesses” and “Confusing Tooth Pain.”