It probably goes without saying that dentists are naturally inclined to be concerned about the teeth and gums. But they are not the only thing dentists that check out during a checkup. Dentists make a point to look beyond the pearly whites at the rest of the structures that make up the mouth in order to make sure patients are in good health.
One of the structures that they examine is one of the most important structures in the mouth. It is the oral mucosa, a mucous membrane lining of the mouth that serves as the body’s first defense against disease-causing bacteria and germs. The oral mucosa is made up of epithelial cells and connective tissue. The oral mucosa is protected by keratin, a protein that strengthens cells and protects them from injury.
The jaws also serve an important role in the mouth by giving it structure and support. The upper jaw is stationary and connected to the skull, while the lower jaw moves with chewing and speaking. The teeth are also attached to the jaw, so the health of the bone is very important to the overall health and function of the mouth.
Another part of the mouth that gets checked up is the salivary glands. The saliva breaks down food but also helps to fortify the teeth against decay. Saliva also helps to neutralize acid that leads to enamel erosion. When the salivary glands do not produce saliva, the patient suffers from xerostomia, or dry mouth, and is at a higher risk developing decay and periodontal infections.
"During a dental checkup, dentists and hygienists look at the teeth, gums and other structures of the mouth for signs of illness or disease," says Dr. Steven P. Rogers, D.M.D. Rogers is a Grant’s Pass, Oregon, dentist who provides preventative checkups and biomimetic dental treatments. "We’re looking for signs that everything is healthy – tissues are pink, gums do not bleed, and there are no spots or lesions that may warrant a closer look," he explains.
Other structures that dental providers are concerned with are the uvula; the tissue flap at the back of the throat that helps with speech and maintaining moisture in the mouth, and the frenulum linguae; the tissue flap under the tongue that helps to anchor the tongue to the bottom of the mouth. The function of the frenulum is to allow the tongue to move during speech and chewing.
"Dentists also make a point to check out the tongue," says Rogers. The tongue aids in swallowing, allows individuals to taste and is essential in the ability to speak. "We are looking for signs or spots that indicate infection or conditions like oral cancer."
Oral cancer is an aggressive form of cancer that claims the lives of 9,750 people each year, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Many dentists offer oral cancer screenings as part of regular checkups. "Screenings are performed by ultraviolet light, but a visual and physical examination of the mouth is also important," says Rogers.
Dentists also check the teeth for signs of dental plaque; the sticky film that builds up on the teeth and structures of the mouth in between brushing. They also look for signs of enamel erosion, tooth decay and for physical damage like cracks or chips that happen as a result of normal wear and tear, or tooth grinding. Dentists also look for signs of gum disease or gum recession. "Healthy gums and mouth tissues do not bleed when poked during an exam," says Rogers.
"It is important for patients to know what a healthy mouth looks like, "says Rogers. He recommends when patients brush their teeth, they should take a moment to check out their gums, teeth, and tongue and note any areas of concern or any changes and talk to their dentist about their concerns at their next checkup.