One out of three adults didn’t see a dentist in the last 12 months. The survey is done every few years and the results have been the same for a while. There’s so many questions and comments I could make related to this. Are people’s priorities out of whack? Is dentistry just too expensive? Why don’t all health insurance plans include dental benefits? This article isn’t about any of that. What I’d like to discuss is what is actually happening to all of these neglected teeth!? What happens if you just don’t go to the dentist for 10 years?
Pain. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of people out there suffering that need to see a dentist. They’re in constant pain, they can’t eat, and they are miserable. For many of these patients, they have no dental insurance, no means to pay for care, and they either can’t qualify for assistance or haven’t figured out how to qualify. Adults and children fall into this category, and it’s a sad reality in this day and age. Pain and loss of function of your teeth is a potential consequence of not going to the dentist for 10 years. Of course, infections and hospital visits are potential consequences as well.
Nothing…for Now. There’s three major reasons a patient who hasn’t been to the dentist in a long time will come in. The first is trauma. Perhaps they broke a tooth in an accident or cracked a molar with a large filling in it while eating something hard. The second reason is decay. Patient may have a tooth that starts hurting with decay that is into the nerve or notice a black hole in a tooth. The third reason (that many patients don’t think about) is out of control gum disease that has progressed to receding gums and loss of bone that holds the teeth in, also known as periodontal disease. For some patients, the process for any of the three reasons described above may take several years to get bad enough to the point where they notice the problem or experience pain. A patient could have untreated decay or untreated gum problems for many years before any pain starts.
Untreated decay going ten years without needing treatment is rare but not unheard of. Untreated periodontal disease going ten years without enough pain to prompt the patient to seek care is common. I probably see it at least once a week on a new patient. Periodontal disease can go many years, sometimes more than a decade, before it hurts. Typically, by the time the gums hurt, treatment options can be very limited.
Nothing. Seriously. There’s a subset of the population that has never had a cavity and will never have one. They’ve also never had their teeth professionally cleaned and don’t look like they even need to. They’ve never had a dentist touch any of their teeth, and nothing is broken. They don’t have gum disease or even any plaque build up. Brushing and flossing is all they need. Some of these patients don’t even floss! As a dentist I rarely see these patients, but every now and then I come across an adult that hasn’t seen a dentist in 10+ years and they are perfectly fine. There’s only a few people out there like this, but they exist.
In summary, besides a rare set of people that are immune to dental decay and periodontal disease, most people need to see a dentist at some point during a ten year window. As a general rule, if dental treatment is only sought when pain is present, options for treatment are generally fewer and more expensive. Preventive care is key: regular cleanings, small fillings if necessary, and replacement of old dental restorations as needed. Pain and costly treatment can be avoided if prevention is your goal.