Receding gums is the term used to describe gums that have shrunk back to reveal the lower, normally unexposed and protected part of your teeth. It is a very common problem, but just because it affects a lot of people, that doesn’t make it normal. Left untreated receding gums can continue to shrink and this can lead to serious problems with your teeth as well as your gums. In advanced cases, people with receding gums find that their teeth become loose and can fall out or need to be taken out. Fortunately, the treatment for receding gums is usually simple and straightforward and you can expect to achieve a full recovery.
This article on receding gums is by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.
What are receding gums?
The gums, or gingiva, are made of soft tissue that covers the bones of the jaw. This tissue protects the jawbone and the more sensitive areas of the teeth that are not covered by enamel.
Receding gums can be a symptom of a reduction of the tissue itself, or of the bone beneath. Unfortunately, since the changes in the gums occur very slowly, often over a period of years, most people do not notice their appearance changing. This is why regular dental check-ups are important, as your dentist will be able to spot the signs of receding gums more easily that you yourself can.
Receding gums may be quite common but the condition is neither normal nor inevitable, even in old age; a good oral hygiene routine can prevent receding gums in most cases. If you do develop receding gums, getting prompt dental treatment will prevent further changes and will prevent the problem coming back if you then keep up with your oral hygiene.
Becoming more aware of the symptoms of receding gums can help you to recognise the problem earlier. Left untreated, receding gums can result in permanent and irreparable damage to the teeth and jawbone, even making dentures hard to fit once you have actually lost teeth.
There are several symptoms of receding gums to look out for:
- Sensitive teeth – when exposed, the lower part of the tooth becomes sensitive to heat, cold and salty foods.
- Longer teeth – as your gums recede this will make your teeth appear longer, as if they are growing.
- Increased gaps – receding gums will no longer fill gaps between your teeth, making the teeth appear to be moving apart.
- Changes in colour – the shrinking gums may expose a visible line where the enamel stops and the root begins. You may even feel this as a ridge at the base of your teeth.
Bad brushing techniques
Ironically, one of the major causes of receding gums is the way we brush our teeth. Excessive brushing can actually wear away the tissue along the gum line, exposing the lower part of the tooth. This can easily be corrected, and your dental hygienist will be happy to teach you a better brushing technique.
Conversely, not brushing enough can also cause receding gums, as it will not remove the bacteria that build up on the teeth. These bacteria produce enzymes that attack the jawbone; as this is damaged, pockets form that attract even more bacteria, making the receding gums problem even worse.
Caused by disease
There are two types of gum disease that contribute to receding gums:
- Gingivitis – this is a mild form of gum disease that results in swelling and infection that damages the tissue causing the gums to shrink back.
- Periodontitis – this is a far more destructive infection that can attack the gums and the jawbone below.
In both gingivitis and periodontitis, brushing causes bleeding and discomfort. This can often lead to inadequate brushing, which then only makes the situation worse.
Oral hygiene problems are usually to blame but there are many other causes:
- Pressure from an imbalanced bite or poorly balanced dental work. This causes trauma to the gums and the underlying bones and can cause receding gums as the natural alignment slips.
- Pressure from teeth grinding or clenching.
- The abrasive effect of piercings in the lips or tongue.
- Smoking, as the toxic chemicals in smoke erode the gum tissue.
- Eating disorders, particularly bulimia, as the acid in vomit erodes the gums, teeth and bone beneath.
In most cases, the only treatment required for receding gums is to eradicate the original cause and allow the tissue to recover naturally. This could be through better brushing, the use of anti-bacterial mouthwash (such as Corsodyl), realignment of the bite, repair to previous dental work or simply the removal of piercings.
Specialist toothpaste, designed for sensitive teeth, may also be recommended to ease the pain while the tissue grows back.
In more severe cases, where receding gums have reached a dangerous level, it is possible to carry out dental treatment to graft gum tissue from elsewhere in the mouth onto the damaged area. This may come from nearby teeth or be taken from the roof of the mouth. Artificial grafts can also be used, and experiments are currently being undertaken to grow gum tissue from stem cells.
Receding gums are not normal and should always be a cause for concern. You can take action to reduce the risk of having receding gums by learning and following a good oral hygiene regime. With correct brushing techniques, your gums should stay healthy but if you have regular check-ups at the dentist, any problems can be caught early. If you are aware that you grind or clench your teeth, your dentist may also be able to help you stop, or at least prevent this habit causing too much damage. Finally stopping smoking is an important step since you can then avoid the damage from the toxic chemicals in smoke that can easily undo even the best dental care.