Reports of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) are increasing worldwide. In the United States, about 1 million adults have been diagnosed with the disease. Scientists don’t know the exact cause. However, they believe the right combination of genetics and environmental factors can trigger it to develop.
MS affects people differently, usually causing fatigue, depression and muscle stiffness or spasms. It also causes tingling and pain in the face, hands and feet. But people often ask, “Can multiple sclerosis cause dental problems?” Learn more about multiple sclerosis health and dental issues.
How MS develops
MS is a disease that can disable the brain and spinal cord (also known as the central nervous system). The disease attacks the protective sheath that covers nerve fibers, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Over time, MS can permanently damage or weaken nerve fibers.
MS is not contagious. However, scientific studies show that women are three times more likely than men to develop MS. This may indicate that hormones contribute to the development of the disease. Multiple sclerosis often is diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 40. Medical experts report that symptoms of MS are varied and unpredictable. Rarely do people diagnosed with MS have the same symptoms, which can change over time. However, many people with MS have dental problems.
MS risk factors
Medical professionals have identified several risk factors for developing MS:
- Family history – A parent or sibling with MS increases the likelihood of other family members developing the disease. Scientists believe a gene on chromosome 6p21 is associated with MS.
- Viruses – Some infections are linked to MS, such as the Epstein-Barr virus.
- Race – White people, especially those of Northern-European descent, are at the highest risk for MS. People of Asian, African or Native American descent are at the lowest risk.
- Sun and vitamin D – People with low vitamin D levels and low exposure to sunlight are at higher risk for MS.
- Autoimmune diseases – Some autoimmune diseases may increase the risk for MS, including thyroid disease, pernicious anemia, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.
Dental care challenges
In addition to physical problems, many people with MS have difficulty properly caring for their teeth and gums. Here are six reasons why:
- Exhaustion – People with MS often struggle with fatigue. Even brushing and flossing teeth can be exhausting, so this daily task often is put off.
- Distraction – Dealing with MS can take a lot of time and energy. People with the disease may be distracted by the care requirements and forget to brush and floss their teeth.
- Prescription drug side effects – Medical professionals may prescribe medications to help people with MS cope with symptoms associated with the disease. These drugs can dry up saliva, making it easier for bacteria to collect on teeth and gums. Research shows that dry mouth and bleeding gums are common conditions in people with advanced stages of MS. Chewing sugar-free gum can help encourage saliva production.
- Physical limitations – MS can cause problems with motor function and coordination. Surveys show that about 90% of people with MS have some form of facial pain, tremors or weakness, numbness and tingling in their hands. These physical issues can make it difficult for people to brush and floss their teeth properly.
- Transport and comfort challenges – Many people with MS avoid going to the dentist because the experience is overwhelming. Appointments can be exhausting, especially if extensive dental treatment is required. Dental offices may not be easily accessible and dental chairs may be uncomfortable, not providing the proper support MS patients need.
- Oral health concerns – Researchers report that people with MS have higher incidences of tooth decay and gum disease. Many medications prescribed for MS can reduce saliva, which is necessary for rinsing and removing food particles and bacteria from teeth and gums. Lack of saliva also causes dry mouth.
These conditions can lead to long-term dental problems and impact overall health. In fact, dental experts say poor oral hygiene can cause periodontal (gum) disease. Gum disease increases the chance of having a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke.
When it comes to eating, people with poor dental health can have problems chewing their food. This limits their ability to eat nutritious fruits, vegetables and lean meats essential for healthy teeth and bodies. They also may struggle to brush and floss their teeth due to muscle stiffness in the hands and face. Dental experts provide these tips to make the process easier:
- Wear a weighted glove – For people with muscle tremors and stiffness in their hands, wearing a weighted glove can make brushing and flossing easier.
- Use flossing tools – Tooth or water flossers can help people remove food particles and plaque between teeth and gums. Since people with MS tend to tire quickly, flossing in the morning may be preferred.
- Try a different toothbrush – Using an electric toothbrush can make it easier to keep teeth and gums clean. Or, build up the handle on a manual toothbrush to improve the grip. For example: Try cutting a small slit in the side of a tennis ball and sliding it onto the toothbrush handle.
- Ask for assistance – Ask a friend or family member to help with brushing and flossing. Sitting down during these tasks may be more comfortable, causing less fatigue.
Schedule regular dental visits
Visit the dentist once every six months for a professional exam and teeth cleaning. Before the visit, contact the dental office to discuss your health history and any special accommodations. Dental insurance can help cover the cost. Learn more about what to look for in a dental plan.
Maintain good oral health
Prevent dental problems by following these six tips:
- Brush teeth twice daily – after breakfast and before bedtime, using toothpaste with fluoride. Replace the toothbrush every three or four months or after a cold. Review these tips on brushing your teeth.
- Brush or scrape your tongue each day.
- Floss daily and do it before you brush.
- Eat nutritious meals, avoiding foods high in sugar and carbohydrates.
- Avoid smoking.
- Drink water throughout the day to prevent dry mouth and keep oral tissues clean.
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