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In many cases it's the dentist - and not the physician - who has the first opportunity to detect diabetes early, because diabetics are especially prone to dental health problems.
Swollen, tender, receding and bleeding gums, loose teeth, and a sore tongue may not just be signs of poor dental hygiene. They may be danger signals for diabetes, too.
If you have any of these symptoms, you may be one of the estimated 11 million people in North America who already have diabetes, or you may be one of the 600,000 who will be diagnosed this year.
Diabetes occurs when a gland called the pancreas fails to produce sufficient amounts of the hormone, insulin, to regulate blood sugar levels. In other words: Diabetics have too little insulin and too much sugar in their blood.
When this happens, the body tissue can't convert the sugar it needs into energy. The blood stream then fills with this unused sugar and the result is diabetes - a disease medical journals often describe as the "forever" disease.
A serious illness which respects neither age, sex, race nor income level, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in people 20 to 65 years old and can lead to kidney failure, heart attacks and even death.
But outside the dental community, few people realize that diabetics have more than their share of tooth and periodontal (gum) problems. This fact is especially true for undiagnosed diabetics or those who have failed to control their disease adequately with insulin and/or diet and exercise.
Periodontal disease among diabetics progresses rapidly, recurs frequently, and heals slowly. The resistance to treatment can lead to loosened teeth and premature tooth loss.
Your regular dental office visits provide the best chance for early detection of many health problems, including diabetes. If you have a diabetic tendency, your dentist may very well refer you to your physician - another good reason to keep your prescribed dental recall and dental cleaning appointments faithfully!
If you are diabetic, it's important that you keep your dental health history up-to-date, exercise regularly, and eat a diet that provides good nutrition:
Teeth don't heal themselves, so small problems turn into big ones if left untreated. Major oral surgery requires a general anesthetic which means "no food prior to surgery" - a problem for diabetics.
It's natural to want to lump people together in some Big Category. Natural, but wrong. Like, "Baby Boomer." President Clinton and home run slugger Mark McGwire are both "Boomers." But are these two guys exactly alike?
It's the same in health and dental care. Your oral chemistry is as unique as your thumbprint. Yet magazine stories claim "you" need only one dental appointment a year to stay healthy. They don't know you. They're referring to an "average" patient. Dental insurance plans also tend to believe in this mythical "average patient" and may not pay for more than a biannual visit.
Sure, two visits are fine for many patients, even most. But some mouths build up more tartar than others. Others are naturally decay-prone. Still others - and this is critical - may be showing signs of periodontal (gum) disease.
Bleeding gums need to be taken seriously. They're signs of an infection that can be a significant risk factor for heart disease, and, in fact, many serious illnesses. If you had a bleeding sore on your hand that didn't heal you'd get to a doctor for a checkup, right? Type I periodontitis (gingivitis) consists of tender gums and a little bacteria-filled pocket between your tooth and gum. It's easily treatable at this point. But if the infected pockets are allowed to enlarge and you get swollen gums, that inflammation can extend to the bone beneath and erode it.
Your periodontist's concern is for your health and your teeth, not whether you've made the standard number of appointments for this year. He or she wants the chemistry to be right in your mouth... and between the two of you.