Posts for: December, 2018
Fans of the legendary rock band Steely Dan received some sad news a few months ago: Co-founder Walter Becker died unexpectedly at the age of 67. The cause of his death was an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. This disease, which is related to oral cancer, may not get as much attention as some others. Yet Becker's name is the latest addition to the list of well-known people whose lives it has cut short—including actor Humphrey Bogart, writer Christopher Hitchens, and TV personality Richard Dawson.
As its name implies, esophageal cancer affects the esophagus: the long, hollow tube that joins the throat to the stomach. Solid and liquid foods taken into the mouth pass through this tube on their way through the digestive system. Worldwide, it is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths.
Like oral cancer, esophageal cancer generally does not produce obvious symptoms in its early stages. As a result, by the time these diseases are discovered, both types of cancer are most often in their later stages, and often prove difficult to treat successfully. Another similarity is that dentists can play an important role in oral and esophageal cancer detection.
Many people see dentists more often than any other health care professionals—at recommended twice-yearly checkups, for example. During routine examinations, we check the mouth, tongue, neck and throat for possible signs of oral cancer. These may include lumps, swellings, discolorations, and other abnormalities—which, fortunately, are most often harmless. Other symptoms, including persistent coughing or hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and unexplained weight loss, are common to both oral and esophageal cancer. Chest pain, worsening heartburn or indigestion and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also alert us to the possibility of esophageal cancer.
Cancer may be a scary subject—but early detection and treatment can offer many people the best possible outcome. If you have questions about oral or esophageal cancer, call our office or schedule a consultation. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Cancer.”
Modern dental care wouldn’t be the same without x-rays. Since dentists began capturing x-ray images a century ago to detect beginning tooth decay, billions of teeth have been preserved.
“Catching it early” is the key to staying ahead of this aggressive bacterial infection. Once it breaks through the protective defenses of tooth enamel, it can advance toward the center of the tooth, the pulp, damaging dentin as it goes. While we can effectively stop it at this point with a root canal treatment, it’s better for the tooth’s long-term health to detect and treat any decay early on with a less-invasive filling or other treatment method.
X-ray imaging helps make that possible, revealing decay much easier than we can see with the unaided eye. And while we can often detect decay in front teeth by visual examination or by using very bright lighting, that’s not as easy with the less accessible back teeth. For those teeth we use a special x-ray technique known as the bitewing.
The name comes from the small frame used to hold the film. It’s held in place in the mouth by the patient biting down on small tabs or “wings” extending from the frame. The x-ray beam travels through the outer cheek and teeth to the film being held in the frame on the back side of the teeth. When exposed, we’ll be able to view the interior of these back teeth: a set of four bitewings gives us a full view of all the upper and lower molars and pre-molars on each side of the jaws.
Like other forms of radiation energy, too much or too frequent exposures to x-rays can lead to serious health problems. But bitewing x-rays carry little risk to health. That’s because they fit well with the ALARA principle, meaning “As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” which helps guide our use of x-rays. Patients receive a fraction of the radiation exposure from routine bitewing x-rays than they receive annually from the natural environment.
Without bitewing x-rays and other diagnostic methods, the chances are high that tooth decay or other dental problems can go undetected in their early stages. Using this important tool can help us head off major damage before it occurs.
If you would like more information on the role of x-rays in dental care, 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 “Bitewing X-Rays: A Routine Part of Your Dental Exam.”
Like other healthcare providers, dentists have relied for decades on the strong pain relief of opioid (narcotic) drugs for patients after dental work. As late as 2012, doctors and dentists wrote over 250 million prescriptions for these drugs. Since then, though, those numbers have shrunk drastically.
That’s because while effective, drugs like morphine, oxycodone or fentanyl are highly addictive. While those trapped in a narcotic addiction can obtain drugs like heroine illicitly, a high number come from prescriptions that have been issued too liberally. This and other factors have helped contribute to a nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction involving an estimated 2 million Americans and thousands of deaths each year.
Because three-quarters of opioid abusers began their addiction with prescription pain medication, there’s been a great deal of re-thinking about how we manage post-procedural pain, especially in dentistry. As a result, we’re seeing a shift to a different strategy: using a combination of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), particularly ibuprofen and acetaminophen, instead of a prescribed narcotic.
These over-the-counter drugs are safer and less costly; more importantly, though, they don’t have the high addictive quality of an opioid drug. A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) showed that when two NSAIDs were used together, the pain relief was greater than either drug used individually, and better than some opioid medications.
That’s not to say dentists no longer prescribe opioids for pain management following dental work. But the growing consensus among dental providers is to rely on the double NSAID approach as their first-line therapy. If a patient has other medical conditions or the NSAIDs prove ineffective, then the dentist can prescribe an opioid instead.
There’s often hesitancy among dental patients on going this new route rather than the tried and true opioid prescription. That’s why it’s important to discuss the matter with your dentist before any procedure to see which way is best for you. Just like you, your dentist wants your treatment experience to be as pain-free as possible, in the safest manner possible.