• July 11, 2012
  • Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh

As a mother of two gorgeous little girls, I often wonder how I will protect my kids from distorted body image issues and that worst case scenario: a full blown eating disorder. Every woman (and some men, even) remembers looking at themselves in a mirror as a teenager and thinking: “How do I compare to the glamorous girls in the magazines?” Growing up in the nineties when ‘supermodels’ ruled and Linda, Naomi, Kristy and the gang were household names even my grandmother knew, it must be a miracle I escaped childhood without one and was completely ignorant to the existence of such a thing as an eating disorder. But therein lies one of the most devastating and powerful weapons these disorders wield: they are silent, they sneak up on the sufferers and on their closest family and friends and then they suddenly explode!

I don’t want to go on about the definition and the various types of eating disorders. All I will say is that they are considered mental disorders and as such are extremely difficult to deal with and need a huge team of health professionals to diagnose them, stop their progression and help bring the sufferers back to health. Dentists are important members of this team of professionals because, in case of dental and oral complications, the effects of eating disorders are often irreversible. In simplest terms, the scars of eating disorders are most visible in a person’s smile. Today, eating disorders affect mostly young people and the incidence is growing. These young people are literally being robbed of their beautiful smiles!

Dentists are surprisingly some of the first health professionals to see the early signs and symptoms of an eating disorder. An eating disorder depletes its’ sufferer from nutrients and results in hormonal imbalances. Together with vomiting and unhealthy eating habits, this affects the hard surfaces (teeth), the gums and the soft tissues of the mouth.

The signs and symptoms dentists usually see are:

  • sensitive teeth,
  • enamel erosion on the palatal (inner) side of the upper front teeth,
  • discoloured, chipped and worn upper front teeth,
  • bleeding gums,
  • dry and cracked lips and angles of the mouth (due to Iron, Folate and Vitamin B deficiencies),
  • ulcers,
  • burning mouth,
  • dry mouth,
  • enlarged parotid glands (in front of the ears),
  • raised fillings where teeth have been dissolved away.

Unfortunately, the only way to approach dental complications of these disorders is to prevent severe damage to the teeth, gums and soft tissues. Any long-lasting restoration of lost teeth structure, be it for cosmetic reasons or to fix a decaying tooth, is nearly impossible if the eating disorder is active. Therefore, preventative care visits are absolutely essential for people who are going through these disorders.

Some possible dental treatments may include:

  • three monthly preventative care visits with the dentist and hygienist to monitor changes in teeth and soft tissues,
  • regular fluoride rinses,
  • neutralising rinses after vomiting,
  • avoiding brushing straight after vomiting,
  • wearing trays with fluoride or calcium topical supplements to harden teeth against acid attacks,
  •  staying away from fruit drinks, soft drinks and energy drinks,
  • avoiding citrus fruit.

A mental illness such as an eating disorder is an extremely private issue for the sufferer and a difficult subject for a dental professional to bring up and discuss with their patient. However, any topic is much easier to discuss when you are feeling safe and amongst friends. This is why it’s so important to develop a lasting relationship between a patient and the dental team. When barriers are removed, treatment can be more successful and who knows, something as innocent as a regular dental visit may even signal a start of an amazing, early recovery and a positive future ahead, smiles intact!

Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh
About The Author

Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh

Catherine-Anne is a New Zealand-qualified dentist. She holds a Masters Degree in Public Health from Sydney University and she has a broad range of experiences from working in both the public and private sector.


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