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Dental Health

How to Avoid Jaw Problems

We get so excited when babies get their first teeth—that tiny sharp bit of white poking up out of smooth pink gums. By the time you reach adulthood, you’ve got thirty-two big teeth—fewer if you had wisdom teeth or others removed—and they probably aren’t quite as white. But they are still just as crucial for your health and happiness today as the day you got them.

Dr. Kim Harms, American Dental Association spokesperson and educator, says we live in the best time in the history of the world as far as mouths are concerned. “Your grandparents probably had dentures, your parents probably had at least partial false teeth,” she says. “Today, you can keep your teeth for your whole life.” The next generation will be even better with fewer root canals and crowns.

Prevention is key—we know more now and take better care of teeth and gums than ever before. But we also need to pay attention to something else: our jaw.

Harms explains how the jaw muscle and joint works in relation to our teeth. “It is a rotating, gliding hinge joint. It does a lot more movements than most of your joints like a wrist or elbow.” And that cartilage, just like the cartilage around your knee, wears down from arthritis, injury, or overuse.

When you bite down to eat, your teeth connect and your jaw muscles are pushed together. When all your teeth are healthy and present, the bite is nice and stable—an even, straight line bite. This keeps your jaw bones and muscle healthy too. When teeth are missing and you take a bite, things are off balance. One side of your mouth goes lower, putting strain on the jaw muscle. Over time, that wears out the joint and can lead to bone problems as well.

Another jaw problem Harms and other dentists see in middle-aged patients comes from clenching and grinding the teeth. “Most people don’t even know they are doing it, especially at night,” she says. But you’ll feel the tension in your jaw and neck, perhaps some tooth sensitivity if you are grinding off the protective enamel.

One of the most common complaints people have about their jaw is called TMJ–you’ve probably heard of it. The temporomandibular joint is the one doing all the work moving your lower jaw around. Do when you clench it with stress, especially all night long, it can lead to dysfunction.

Harms says that it isn’t just stress that can cause clenching and grinding, but also medications like those treating blood pressure. Night guards are one of the best treatments to soften the effect on teeth during those long hours, and she recommends staying on top of your regular dental visits. The extra wear on your teeth can mean easier breakage and cavities, so vigilance is important.

There’s one habit that may come as a surprise risk that retirees are particularly vulnerable to when it has to do with oral health. “All day beverages are dangerous,” says Harms. “Not water. Drink all the water you want. But sipping a cup of coffee all day? That can be a problem.” The reason: exposure to carbohydrates. Every time your teeth are exposed to the cream or sugar in your cup of coffee, bacteria are activated. “It is more dangerous to drink all day than eating all your carbohydrates at one meal,” says Harms.

Tooth decay becomes more of a problem any time we produce less saliva. That’s a common side effect for so many medications. Dry mouth isn’t just annoying, but also wreaks havoc on mouths. Saliva balances the pH in mouths and prevents bacteria from sticking around. Over time, our tooth enamel wears down and those bacteria are more damaging to our teeth—causing cavities that get into the roots and need serious care. To combat dry mouth, drink water regularly and consider using an over-the-counter dry mouth rinse. According to the Mayo Clinic, you can also suck on sugar-free hard candies to stimulate saliva production.

As we age, taking care of our teeth becomes about more than looking good. Harms says that following the simple formula you’ve always heard about brushing, flossing, and seeing a dentist regularly really is all you need to do to keep your teeth with you forever. And that will make a huge difference in your quality of life as you age.