Taking care of your whole body: how dentists and doctors work together for better health

If you are experiencing pain in your mouth, it could be a cavity that’s causing the ache. But there’s also a chance it’s something else. Your mouth is connected to the rest of your body, and it’s a dentist’s role to factor in all the possibilities when diagnosing a problem – and to partner with the appropriate health professionals to treat it.

I recently had a patient who visited my office with a severe toothache. She fully expected that the solution would be a filling or a root canal. However, after an x-ray, I saw that the problem wasn’t a cavity – in fact, the issue wasn’t with her teeth at all. Her discomfort was coming from a sinus infection, which was causing pressure that felt like a toothache. So the solution? I spoke to her family doctor, who examined her and prescribed antibiotics. In a few days, her pain was gone.

Dentists and doctors have a common goal: the health of their patients. When they are able to work as a team, they have access to better information and more specialized expertise, resulting in faster, more accurate diagnoses. A team approach improves the quality of care, helps build respect between health care professionals – and benefits your overall health.

The sinus-tooth story is just one example in the ways that doctors and dentists work together to maintain their patients’ health. In our dental practice, we regularly partner with a variety of professionals to help our patients achieve optimal health.

Family physicians: When patients suffer from significant headaches, the pain can be related to jaw position and pressure of the jaw joint on blood vessels and nerves. GPs can turn to dentists to help them determine the cause. Or, when a dentist notices severe acid wear on a patient’s teeth, he or she can work with the family doctor to see if reflux or a gastric ulcer is the cause.

Ear, nose and throat specialists: When a child isn’t breathing normally, it impacts jaw formation. If enlarged tonsils or adenoids are obstructing the airway, the upper jaw narrows, which can cause significant crowding and discomfort when the adult teeth come in. If left untreated, the crowding will likely result in a need for braces and, possibly, surgery. Obstructions can also cause hearing issues, which can impact a child’s ability to learn and communicate. When we discover an airway concern in a young child, we refer them to a specialist immediately. Early intervention can reduce the chances of bigger problems later on.

Pathologists: Early cancerous lesions usually show up in the mouth. In our practice, we do a cancer check at every visit. We examine the head and neck and look carefully at the mouth, tongue and throat. We have discovered early stages of malignant cancer in a number of our patients, and quickly referred them to a pathologist. Early detection has benefited several patients who would otherwise not have known to seek treatment.

Neurologists: When a person is experiencing facial pain, the problem can be nerve-related or muscle-related. Dentists can work with neurologists to determine the cause of the pain – and potential treatments.

Chiropractors and physiotherapists: In patients with jaw joint pain (TMJ), tense or misaligned back, neck and facial muscles often contribute to the problem. When we work with special bite splints to relieve TMJ, we often refer patients to a chiropractor or a physiotherapist to help with the muscular component.

Plastic surgeons and oral surgeons: With patients who are concerned with the appearance and function of their mouths, braces can offer a great result. In some situations, jaw surgery and/or facial reconstruction can help achieve the desired outcome.

In Ontario, we have one of the most advanced dental and medical systems in the world. Our health care professionals lead the world in diagnosis, care and maintaining quality of life. When those health care leaders work together, the result is better health for all.

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