Have you ever broken a bone? Even if you haven’t, you probably know someone who has. While healing can take time, bones have the amazing ability to repair themselves after trauma. In fact, a broken bone can become just like new.
It’s a different story, however, when it comes to the effects of gum disease on the bone in your mouth. While bone loss doesn’t have the same outcome as a broken wrist, for instance, you can take steps to prevent gum disease and even stop bone loss. Also, some highly effective treatment solutions can help you even after you experience the loss of bone in your jaw. Read on to learn what causes gum disease and bone loss, how to stop gum disease and bone loss, and how to prevent bone loss in the mouth.
What Causes Receding Gums and Bone Loss?
Gum disease is a common cause of bone loss in the mouth. Gum disease (also called periodontitis or periodontal disease) is an infection that triggers inflammation in the bone that surrounds teeth. Over time, that infection and inflammation makes the bone break down. While gingivitis, a mild form of gum disease, likely won’t immediately lead to bone loss, it can worsen over time.
Without treatment, periodontitis can cause tooth loss because as the bone tissue around the teeth shrinks away, the teeth lose support. And without a strong foundation of bone tissue to attach to, the overlying gums start to recede and shrink away from the teeth. So, while receding gums can have several causes, they can be a sign you have some degree of gum disease.
Periodontal disease is usually caused by a combination of conditions including:
- Excess dental plaque buildup
- Untreated gingivitis
- Chronic systemic inflammatory conditions, such as diabetes
- Compromised immune health
Triggering inflammation is only one way gum disease causes bone loss. Bone loss can continue long after a person loses any teeth and all signs of gum disease have disappeared.
The Atlanta Center for Advanced Periodontics, Cosmetic, and Implant Dentistry explains that as much as 25 percent of the surrounding bone tissue is lost within just a year of losing a tooth.
So, why would bone disappear after a tooth is gone? Well, bones contain a lot of calcium, an important mineral our bodies need for healthy function and strong bones. If you have a bone in your body that you do not use, then your body will draw calcium and other minerals away from that area to use them elsewhere. This is all part of a natural process of bone remodeling, and it’s why doctors recommend exercise to strengthen bones. Putting weight or resistance on your bones and making them work encourages your body to deposit more bone tissue in those areas.
The same is true of the bone in your jaw. Bone tissue gets a “workout” when you use it by biting and chewing with your teeth. The pressure you put on your teeth stimulates the bone tissue, which helps it stay strong.
When you lose teeth, the bone in the surrounding area will start to dissolve because it doesn’t experience any resistance. If you lose one or more teeth from the lower half of your mouth, then the bone in those sites will become shallow and thin over time.
The signs of bone loss can include:
- Changes in the fit of a denture, partial denture, or some other oral appliance
- Changes in the shape of your face, including wrinkles around your mouth
- Changes in tooth position or alignment
- Difficulty biting or chewing
- Receded gums
- Loose teeth
It’s important to note, however, that bone loss caused by gum disease can start under the gums where you can’t see. For that reason, visit a dentist as soon as possible for X-rays and a checkup if you think you have early signs of gum disease.
Can Bone Loss Be Reversed?
While a broken bone can stitch itself back together, bone loss in your jaw isn’t reversible. The natural process of bone tissue remodeling slows down as the bone in your jaw dissolves away from the top down — and it doesn’t regenerate on its own.
But, as mentioned at the outset, you can take action to stop bone loss and repair the damage!
Depending on your individual circumstances and the extent of your bone loss, a dentist may recommend one or more of the following solutions.
- Dental implants
Dental implants are the next best thing after natural teeth. When implants replace missing teeth, they will stimulate your bone just like real tooth roots do. That’s why implants can put a quick stop to the bone resorption process.
- Bone grafts
An oral surgeon may build up weakened bone in your jaw with new tissue from a human donor, an animal source, or an artificial material.
- Guided bone regeneration (GBR)
GBR is a gradual process in which nutrients and a guiding membrane, or framework, are placed along with a bone graft to encourage new bone tissue to grow.
Sometimes, a periodontist will recommend GBR to preserve the shape of the jawbone immediately after a tooth extraction so the bone will be ready for a dental implant. But we still need more research to prove whether this step is necessary, so it’s up to a professional to let you know if it’s worth trying.
How to Prevent Bone Loss
What can you do to stop bone loss in the first place? Most importantly, you should take steps to prevent and reverse gum disease, which is a leading cause of bone loss. A consistent oral hygiene routine helps stave off a buildup of the harmful plaque germs that cause gum disease.
Take good care of your mouth by:
- Getting treatment like scaling and root planing for gum disease, if needed
- Scheduling regular checkups and cleanings at your dental office
- Brushing your teeth at least twice per day
- Cleaning between your teeth with floss at least once a day
- Rinsing your mouth with a mouthwash that supports healthy gums
It’s also important to take care of your overall bone health. While there isn’t a clear link between gum disease and bone loss caused by osteoporosis, bone in the jaw weakened by osteoporosis could be at greater risk of more bone loss caused by gum disease.
Unfortunately, you cannot regrow bone loss from periodontal disease naturally. The good news? The effects are preventable, and with treatment and great daily oral care you can enjoy a healthy smile for years to come. Contact your dentist to schedule a gum health checkup and learn more about your risk of gum disease and bone loss.
Dr. Elizabeth Clary, D.M.D. is a member of the American Dental Association, Missouri Dental Association, Missouri Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Chicago Dental Society, Greater St. Louis Dental Society, and Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine Alumni Association.