What Your Dentist Sees During Your Exam

January 31, 2019

Professional dentist showing dental X-ray to woman patient having toothache

From the patient’s perspective, the semiannual routine dental examination — when the dentist stops in and looks things over after the hygienist has cleaned your teeth — seems like a quick, painless affair that hardly matters. It’s as if they’re just checking to make sure the hygienist did a good job.

But that’s definitely not the case.

In fact, the routine visual examination the dentist performs every six months is one of the most important preventive medical services you can receive. It covers a wide range of potential concerns involving oral health and overall systemic health, and has proven an optimal tool for early diagnosis of many serious health issues, and even saved lives.

To learn more, let’s dive into what your dentist is looking for when he “quickly and painlessly” performs the examination every six months.

What your dentist is looking for

With a relatively quick glance in your mouth, the trained eyes of your dentist is scanning for any sign of:

  • Infection: This can manifest as swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, the gums, throat, or other oral tissue. It can also cause redness, sensitivity, pain, or even bleeding of the gums. While an infection of the gums is the most common diagnosis, these signs can occasionally point toward more dangerous systemic infections of the blood. Or, oral infections that are left untreated can travel to other parts of the body where they can do more serious damage.

  • Periodontal disease: Swollen, inflamed, or sensitive gum tissue is a sure sign of gum disease that requires treatment before it escalates into a systemic infection.

  • Dental caries and tooth decay: White or black spots on the teeth are often the first signs of cavities, long before they cause pain. That’s when treatment is quickest and most effective. Tiny hairline fractures, sensitivity to temperature, or unexplained pain in the teeth or gums may indicate tooth decay or injury that requires immediate treatment.

  • Alignment issues: Teeth that are wearing down prematurely and chronic mouth sores around the bite area can indicate the jaws and/or teeth are misaligned or another issue is causing the patient to bite and chew awkwardly.

  • Tooth grinding: Premature wear — especially on the surface of molars — combined with chronic jaw pain and headaches, can indicate a patient grinds their teeth. This may be a sign of stress, or a symptom of other mental and emotional conditions.

  • Serious systemic diseases: Signs of serious conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers are often visible first in the sensitive oral tissue before other obvious warning signs make themselves known. As a result, your dentist’s visual examination could potentially be the opportunity for earliest diagnosis of these serious conditions, with a chance of more effective treatment and prognosis.

What you can do to help your dentist

While your dentist will rely on your hygienist’s trained observations, and can see a lot of detail through their visual examination, they need your help as well. To get the most possible out of each routine dental exam, be sure to do the following:

  • Talk: Let your dentist know of any concerns you’ve been experiencing. Have you noticed pain or sensitivity in your teeth, gums, or jaw? Have you seen any sign of discoloration or redness in your mouth that’s not present at the moment? Share these observations with your dentist along with any questions you may have.

  • Listen: Then, listen carefully to your dentist’s responses and suggestions. Continue with any follow-up questions or comments so you’re both sure the dentist has all the facts. They will either give you a clean bill of oral health or make treatment suggestions based on what they see combined with your discussion.

  • Act: Follow through after the visit by acting on the recommendations your dentist makes. Don’t procrastinate on treatment or further testing if the exam turned up areas of concern. The fact that it’s not causing you pain now probably means your dentist caught the issue early, and that’s the best time to treat it.

By working together with your dentist, you can be sure your semiannual routine examination will prove to be an effective diagnostic and treatment tool, as intended.

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