You may know that eating disorders can cause health complications, but did you know they can lead to deteriorating conditions of your teeth and gums? In fact, oral deterioration is often one of the first signs of an eating disorder. A well-informed dental hygienist and/or dentist can be one of the first professionals to recognize these signs. If you are not seeing a dental professional you feel comfortable speaking with about your eating disorder-related oral deterioration, it is best that you find one that is both trauma-informed and eating disorder-informed.
Since February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, and it is estimated that 13.2% of girls suffer from a nonspecific eating disorder symptom by age 20, it seemed appropriate to address this topic this month and talk about finding someone who can help you with eating disorder related dental care.
Regardless of age or gender, eating disorders are very hard on the body and the effects are especially prevalent in the mouth where gums and teeth can suffer permanent damage. But how are they affected?
Nutrient Deficiencies and Eating Disorders
When you have an eating disorder, it is likely that you are not getting the proper nutrition that your body needs. When that happens, several changes begin to occur in your mouth.
First, you can experience chronic dry mouth, and your saliva glands swell and they become less effective. Without proper saliva hydration, you are susceptible to the following:
- Increased plaque
- Tooth decay
- Gum disease and bleeding gums (some patients develop recession requiring the need for surgery to repair the damage)
- Mouth sores
- Yeast infection in your mouth (thrush)
- Sores or split skin at the corners of your mouth, or cracked lips
Secondly, a vitamin deficiency from inadequate nutrition also causes these symptoms:
- Weakened teeth
- Bad breath
- Canker sores
- Swollen red gums that will look almost glossy
Eating Disorders, Vomiting, and Oral Health
People who struggle with certain forms of eating disorders such as bulimia also experience frequent vomiting which causes its own long list of oral health issues. Strong stomach acids pass over our teeth as we vomit, and for people with certain types of eating disorders, this repeated flow of acid over their teeth can be extremely destructive with the following consequences:
- Tooth enamel can be lost
- Teeth can change in color – and can even change in shape and length
- Teeth can become brittle, translucent, and weak – and can even break
- Degenerations can make it very uncomfortable to eat anything very hot or very cold
- After vomiting, brushing teeth or rinsing with mouthwash can actually make this worse
- In extreme cases, the pulp of the teeth can be exposed and even die rendering the tooth susceptible to falling out
In addition to the acid erosion, the actual act of vomiting is a violent, unnatural, and irregular occurrence. People who vomit frequently may begin to experience:
- Throbbing joint pain in their jaw
- Chronic headaches
- Clicking, stiffness, or pain when opening and closing the jaw
While suffering from frequent vomiting, Mark Burhenne, DDS says, “There is no long-term measure that can prevent the erosion that vomiting causes. As you seek treatment, you can minimize the damage by avoiding brushing directly after throwing up. Instead, try rinsing with a mix of baking soda and water. Keeping your mouth hydrated can also slow the spread of cavities.”
Some Eating Disorder Oral Health Conditions Are Irreversible
The good news is that as you recover from an eating disorder, many of the conditions listed above are reversible. But unfortunately, the following list of conditions may not be reversible, but they can at least be fixed with dental work:
- Tooth decay or erosion: Fixed with fillings, root canals, and in severe cases, extraction
- Severe tooth erosion or even teeth that have fallen out: Fixed with fillings, crowns, veneers, or implants
All of the other conditions may take time to reverse, but you should be able to recover nearly completely with the proper health care, good nutrition, and regular fluoride treatments.
How Can You Find a Good Dentist Who Is Informed About Eating Disorders and Oral Health?
As mentioned, a dental hygienist and/or dentist might be the first medical provider to notice signs of an eating disorder. They are also going to be instrumental in your recovery and road to wellness.
To help you find a qualified professional who has the experience and understanding to treat trauma and eating disorder patients, below is a list of factors to consider:
- You have the opportunity to ask questions while sitting upright (lying down is a vulnerable position)
- Your dentist/hygienist asks you for answers while you are able to answer questions without anything in your mouth
- Your dentist/hygienist discusses recommendations on hygiene after the cleaning and not while you are lying down
- You are not asked questions when you cannot answer.
- You are not asked questions about eating disorder behaviors when lying down
- Your dentist/hygienist explains what they are doing at each step
- The dentist discusses your medical history, mental health history, and medications in a secure and private area.
- You are able to create a safe signal if you need the provider to stop during a procedure
Do You or Someone You Know Have Poor Oral Hygiene and You Suspect an Eating Disorder? Help is Available – You Are Not Alone!
If you believe you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, a joy-filled life is possible. We can work one-on-one with you to make that life a reality. We believe in living a fully recovered life. Our team of specialists will develop a personalized treatment plan for you/your loved one. Contact us today … You are not alone in this battle!