While Sarah Michelle Gellar might be best known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she recently caught a bit of extra attention for slaying her own gums – with a toothbrush.
Indeed, brushing too aggressively – or with brush bristles that are just too hard – is one of the most common causes of gum recession. It’s not just a cosmetic problem. As gums recede, tooth roots are exposed, making the teeth more vulnerable to decay. This is because the roots aren’t covered by enamel like the tops of your teeth but a softer tissue called cementum.
As the cementum wears down, an even softer layer of tissue called dentin is exposed. This tissue consists of miles of microscopic tubules. It also contains nerve endings. When those nerves are exposed, teeth become sensitive to sensations like hot, cold, and sweet. If you have sensitive teeth, you know just how painful those sensations can be!
Exposed dentin also means that harmful bacteria have a very easy path into the living tissues of the tooth, the pulp. When infection reaches the pulp, you’re usually left with just two options. One is a root canal. Many biological dentists don’t recommend this procedure or only recommend it in very special circumstances, using additional disinfection measures such as ozone.
The other option for a deeply infected tooth? Extraction.
But aggressive tooth brushing isn’t the only thing that can cause receding gums. Recession can also be caused by gum disease, chronic clenching or grinding (bruxism), oral piercings, and tobacco use. It can also be a byproduct of orthodontic treatment.
Understanding the cause is vital to successfully treating gum recession. Always, we need to treat causes, not just symptoms, Otherwise, chances are that the problem will eventually return, necessitating retreatment. This is why, for instance, many periodontists – dentists who specialize in treating the tissues that support the teeth – won’t treat gum disease or place implants in patients who continue to use tobacco. Tobacco use is the number one risk factor for gum disease and makes it much more likely that implants will fail.
In the case of recession, the usual correction is the procedure that Gellar underwent: gum grafts. The dentist harvests a bit of tissue from elsewhere in the mouth – usually the roof (palate) – to suture around each exposed root. Once all problem areas have been addressed, the harvest site is sutured, as well. While the procedure can also be done with tissue obtained from a tissue bank, it’s usually best that it come from the patient’s own mouth to ensure biocompatibility.
Normally, gum grafts are not nearly as painful as Gellar makes them out to be. Most of the time, you may have a few days of discomfort and a week or so of eating softer foods and practicing gentler hygiene so as not to disturb the healing, but that’s about it. Once you’ve healed, any issues with tooth sensitivity will be a thing of the past, while your smile should look better than ever!
Of course, the best option is to prevent the recession from happening in the first place. Here are some other things you can do in addition to addressing the root cause of your recession or keep any current recession from getting worse:
- Practice good oral hygiene. Don’t brush too hard, and always use a soft bristled brush. You should brush twice daily and floss once a day. Use interdental brushes to apply ozone oil to the spaces between your teeth.
- Visit your dentist at least twice a year for exams and cleanings. If you have active gum disease, you may need to visit more often and get deeper cleanings (scaling and root planing).
- Eat a low-carb, low-sugar diet – ideally, rich in omega-3s, vitamins C and D, and fiber.
- Consider using botanicals such as eucalyptus oil, aloe vera, peppermint, thyme, and turmeric as part of your daily hygiene.
- Regularly rinse with warm salt water to soothe inflamed gums.
- Practice oil pulling regularly with coconut oil, which has broad antimicrobial qualities.