The gum tissue that surrounds your teeth plays an important role in both the health and appearance of your smile. Your gums act as a barrier to protect the jaw bone that supports your teeth from harmful bacteria, and the tooth-root surfaces beneath the gum line from the wear and tear they would otherwise be subjected to from biting and chewing food. The right amount of healthy, pink gum tissue is also a major component of an attractive smile. Sometimes, however, the gum tissue surrounding one or more teeth can shrink down, exposing the root surfaces. This gum recession can create cosmetic and health issues because, unlike the upper (crown) portion of your teeth, tooth roots are not covered by pearly-white enamel. That’s why exposed roots look darker than the rest of the tooth. Exposed roots are also more prone to decay, and may become sensitive to hot or cold foods.
Causes of Gum Recession
Gum recession has a variety of causes:
- Ineffective oral hygiene. If dental plaque is allowed to remain on your teeth, the bacteria it contains can irritate your gums and cause them to recede. Daily brushing and flossing are extremely important to maintain oral health.
- Overzealous tooth brushing or flossing. This may sound like a contradiction to the above, but it really isn’t: effective doesn’t mean harsh: Rough scrubbing can actually cause your gum tissue to suffer abrasion and cause them to recede from the teeth. Using a brush with bristles that are too hard can do the same. Your dental hygienist can give you tips on tools and techniques.
- Poorly Fitting Oral Appliances. If you are experiencing discomfort from dentures, braces, retainers, or any other type of removable or fixed-in oral appliance, be sure to let your dentist know. Appliances that don’t fit correctly can damage gums by rubbing against them.
- Habits/Lifestyle Choices. Believe it or not, repetitively chewing on ice, and other hard objects such as fingernails or pencils can cause gum recession; so can oral ornaments such as lip and tongue piercings.
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Treatment of Gum Recession
Gum recession doesn’t always need treatment right away. For example, if you have minor areas of recession that are not getting worse and are not very noticeable when you smile, you and your dentist may choose simply to keep an eye on the situation over time. On the other hand, prompt treatment may be advisable if you are experiencing uncomfortable sensitivity; if the root surfaces of your teeth are starting to decay, or the bone surrounding them is deteriorating—or if you simply don’t like the aesthetic impact of gum recession on your smile.
Treatment for gum recession often involves a grafting procedure, in which tissue is moved from one site in the mouth to another. For example, a very thin layer of skin can be taken from the roof of the mouth (which is of the same tissue type as your gums) and placed over exposed tooth roots. Another technique involves moving adjacent (nearby) gum tissue so that it reaches an exposed root. It’s also possible to use grafting materials that have been developed with laboratory-processed tissue. This eliminates the need for a second surgical site—the one that would be created where tissue was removed for use as a graft.
All of these grafting techniques are routine procedures usually performed by a periodontist (gum specialist). They are normally carried out in a dental office under local anesthesia. Your dentist can explain in more detail what each type of treatment involves and which would be the best choice for you. Treatment for gum recession often makes a person look younger, and can sometimes be combined with teeth whitening or veneers for an even more rejuvenated look.
After your gum recession has been treated, you’ll need to keep your oral hygiene up to par so as not to jeopardize your results. A good first step in dealing with gum recession is to consult with your general dentist. He or she can assess your oral hygiene, evaluate the condition of your gums, and refer you to an appropriate specialist if needed.