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Evaluation of the Dental Patient

By

Rosalyn Sulyanto

, DMD, MS, Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Boston Children's Hospital

Last full review/revision Aug 2021| Content last modified Aug 2021
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The first routine dental examination should take place by age 1 year or when the first tooth erupts. Subsequent evaluations should take place at 6-month intervals or whenever symptoms develop. Examination of the mouth is part of every general physical examination. Oral findings in many systemic diseases are unique, sometimes pathognomonic, and may be the first sign of disease (see table Oral Findings in Systemic Disorders Oral Findings in Systemic Disorders Clues suggesting systemic disease may be found in the mouth and adjacent structures (see Introduction to the Approach to the Dental Patient and table Oral Findings in Systemic Disorders). A... read more ). Oral cancer Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma Oral cancer refers to cancer occurring between the vermilion border of the lips and the junction of the hard and soft palates or the posterior one third of the tongue. Over 95% of people with... read more Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma may be detected at an early stage.

History

Important dental symptoms include bleeding, pain, malocclusion Malocclusion Malocclusion is abnormal contact between the maxillary and mandibular teeth. (See also Evaluation of the Dental Patient.) This photo shows misalignment between upper and lower teeth as the jaw... read more Malocclusion , new growths, numbness or paresthesias, and chewing problems (see table Some Oral Symptoms and Possible Causes Some Oral Symptoms and Possible Causes The first routine dental examination should take place by age 1 year or when the first tooth erupts. Subsequent evaluations should take place at 6-month intervals or whenever symptoms develop... read more Some Oral Symptoms and Possible Causes ); prolonged dental symptoms may decrease oral intake, leading to weight loss. General information includes use of alcohol Alcohol Toxicity and Withdrawal Alcohol (ethanol) is a central nervous system depressant. Large amounts consumed rapidly can cause respiratory depression, coma, and death. Large amounts chronically consumed damage the liver... read more or tobacco Tobacco Tobacco use is a major individual and public health problem. Dependence develops rapidly. Major consequences include premature death and morbidity caused by cardiovascular disease, lung and... read more (both major risk factors for head and neck cancer) Overview of Head and Neck Tumors Head and neck cancer develops in almost 65,000 people in the United States each year. Excluding skin and thyroid cancers, > 90% of head and neck cancers are squamous cell (epidermoid) carcinomas... read more and systemic symptoms, such as fever and weight loss.

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Physical Examination

A thorough inspection requires good illumination, a tongue blade, gloves, and a gauze pad. Complete or partial dentures are removed so that underlying soft tissues can be seen.

Most physicians use a head-mounted light. However, because the light cannot be precisely aligned on the axis of vision, it is difficult to avoid shadowing in narrow areas. Better illumination results with a head-mounted convex mirror; the physician looks through a hole in the center of the mirror, so the illumination is always on-axis. The head mirror reflects light from a source (any incandescent light) placed behind the patient and slightly to one side and requires practice to use effectively.

The face

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The teeth

Teeth are inspected for shape, alignment, defects, mobility, color, and presence of adherent plaque, materia alba (dead bacteria, food debris, desquamated epithelial cells), and calculus (tartar).

Teeth are gently tapped with a tongue depressor or mirror handle to assess tenderness (percussion sensitivity). Tenderness to percussion suggests deep caries Caries Caries is tooth decay, commonly called cavities. The symptoms—tender, painful teeth—appear late. Diagnosis is based on inspection, probing of the enamel surface with a fine metal instrument... read more Caries (tooth decay) that has caused a necrotic pulp with periapical abscess or severe periodontal disease. Percussion sensitivity or pain on biting also can indicate an incomplete (green stick) fracture of a tooth. Percussion tenderness in multiple adjacent maxillary teeth may result from maxillary sinusitis. Tenderness to palpation around the apices of the teeth also may indicate an abscess.

Loose teeth usually indicate severe periodontal disease Periodontitis Periodontitis is a chronic inflammatory oral disease that progressively destroys the tooth-supporting apparatus. It usually manifests as a worsening of gingivitis and then, if untreated, with... read more Periodontitis but can be caused by bruxism Bruxism Bruxism is clenching or grinding of teeth. Bruxism can abrade and eventually wear down enamel and dentin in the crowns of teeth, damage metal or ceramic dental crowns, and cause teeth to become... read more (clenching or grinding of teeth) or trauma that damages periodontal tissues. Rarely, teeth become loose when alveolar bone is eroded by an underlying mass (eg, ameloblastoma, eosinophilic granuloma). A tumor or systemic cause of alveolar bone loss (eg, diabetes mellitus, hyperparathyroidism, osteoporosis, Cushing syndrome) is suspected when teeth are loose and heavy plaque and calculus are absent.

Calculus is mineralized bacterial plaque—a concretion of bacteria, food residue, saliva, and mucus with calcium and phosphate salts. After a tooth is cleaned, a mucopolysaccharide coating (pellicle) is deposited almost immediately. After about 24 hours, bacterial colonization turns the pellicle into plaque. After about 72 hours, the plaque starts calcifying, becoming calculus. When present, calculus is deposited most heavily on the lingual (inner, or tongue) surfaces of the mandibular anterior teeth near the submandibular and sublingual duct orifices (Wharton ducts) and on the buccal (cheek) surfaces of the maxillary molars near the parotid duct orifices (Stensen ducts).

Caries (tooth decay) first appears as white spots/defects in the tooth enamel due to demineralization. Caries progression results in a cavitated brown lesion. Remineralization of a white spot results in repair of the enamel defect.

Wear of teeth can result from gastric acid exposure due to severe gastroesophageal reflux Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) Incompetence of the lower esophageal sphincter allows reflux of gastric contents into the esophagus, causing burning pain. Prolonged reflux may lead to esophagitis, stricture, and rarely metaplasia... read more Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) (erosion), mechanical action (abrasion) due to bruxism Bruxism Bruxism is clenching or grinding of teeth. Bruxism can abrade and eventually wear down enamel and dentin in the crowns of teeth, damage metal or ceramic dental crowns, and cause teeth to become... read more or a porcelain crown rubbing against opposing enamel (porcelain is harder than enamel), or aging. Wear makes chewing less effective and causes noncarious teeth to become painful when the eroding enamel exposes the underlying dentin. Dentin is sensitive to touch and to temperature changes. A dentist can desensitize such teeth or restore the dental anatomy by placing crowns or onlays over badly worn teeth. In minor cases of root sensitivity, the exposed root may be desensitized by fluoride or potassium nitrate application or dentin-bonding agents.

Deformed teeth may indicate a developmental or endocrine disorder. In Down syndrome, teeth are small, sometimes with agenesis of lateral incisors or premolars and conically shaped mandibular incisors. In congenital syphilis, the incisors may be small at the incisal third, causing a pegged or screwdriver shape with a notch in the center of the incisal edge (Hutchinson incisors), and the 1st molar is small, with a small occlusal surface and roughened, lobulated, often hypoplastic enamel (mulberry molar). In ectodermal dysplasia, teeth are absent or conical, so that dentures may be needed from childhood.

Dentinogenesis imperfecta, an autosomal dominant disorder, causes abnormal dentin that is dull bluish brown and opalescent and does not cushion the overlying enamel adequately. Such teeth cannot withstand occlusal stresses and rapidly become worn.

People with pituitary dwarfism or with congenital hypoparathyroidism have small dental roots; people with gigantism have large ones. Acromegaly causes excess cementum in the roots as well as enlargement of the jaws, so teeth may become widely spaced. Acromegaly also can cause an open bite, a condition that occurs when the maxillary and mandibular incisors do not come into contact when the jaws are closed.

Congenitally narrow lateral incisors occur in the absence of systemic disease. The most commonly congenitally absent teeth are the 3rd molars, followed in frequency by the maxillary lateral incisors and 2nd mandibular premolars.

Defects in tooth color must be differentiated from the darkening or yellowing that is caused by food pigments, aging, and, most prominently, smoking. A tooth may appear gray because of pulpal necrosis, usually due to extensive caries penetrating the pulp, or because of hemosiderin deposited in the dentin after trauma, with or without pulpal necrosis.

Children’s teeth darken appreciably and permanently after even short-term use of tetracyclines by the mother during the 2nd half of pregnancy or by the child during odontogenesis (tooth development), specifically calcification of the crowns, which lasts until age 9. Tetracyclines rarely cause permanent discoloration of fully formed teeth in adults. However, minocycline darkens bone, which can be seen in the mouth when the overlying gingiva and mucosa are thin. Affected teeth fluoresce with distinctive colors under ultraviolet light corresponding to the specific tetracycline taken.

In congenital porphyria, both the deciduous and permanent teeth may have red or brownish discoloration but always fluoresce red from the pigment deposited in the dentin. Congenital hyperbilirubinemia causes a yellowish tooth discoloration.

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Defects in tooth enamel may be caused by rickets, which results in a rough, irregular band in the enamel. Any prolonged febrile illness during odontogenesis can cause a permanent narrow zone of chalky, pitted enamel or simply white discoloration visible after the tooth erupts. Thus, the age at which the disease occurred and its duration can be estimated from the location and height of the band.

Enamel pitting also occurs in tuberous sclerosis and Angelman syndrome. Amelogenesis imperfecta, an autosomal dominant disease, causes severe enamel hypoplasia. Chronic vomiting and esophageal reflux can decalcify the dental crowns, primarily the lingual surfaces of the maxillary anterior teeth.

Swimmers who spend a lot of time in overchlorinated pools may lose enamel from the outer facial/buccal side of the teeth, especially the maxillary incisors, canines, and 1st premolars. If sodium carbonate has been added to the pool water to correct pH, brown calculus develops but can be removed by a dental cleaning.

Fluorosis is mottled enamel that may develop in children who drink water containing > 1 ppm of fluoride during tooth development. Fluorosis depends on the amount of fluoride ingested and the age of the child during exposure. Enamel changes range from irregular whitish opaque areas to severe brown discoloration of the entire crown with a roughened surface. Such teeth are highly resistant to dental caries.

The mouth and oral cavity

The lips are palpated. With the patient’s mouth open, the buccal mucosa and vestibules are examined with a tongue blade; then the hard and soft palates, uvula, and oropharynx are viewed. The patient is asked to extend the tongue as far as possible, exposing the dorsum, and to move the extended tongue as far as possible to each side, so that its posterolateral surfaces can be seen. If a patient does not extend the tongue far enough to expose the circumvallate papillae, the examiner grasps the tip of the tongue with a gauze pad and extends it. Then the tongue is raised to view the ventral surface and the floor of the mouth. The teeth and gingiva are viewed.

An abnormal distribution of keratinized or nonkeratinized oral mucosa demands attention. Keratinized tissue that occurs in normally nonkeratinized areas appears white. This abnormal condition, called leukoplakia, requires a biopsy because it may be cancerous or precancerous. More ominous, however, are thinned areas of mucosa. These red areas, called erythroplakia, if present for at least 2 weeks, especially on the ventral tongue and floor of the mouth, suggest dysplasia, carcinoma in situ, or cancer Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma Oral cancer refers to cancer occurring between the vermilion border of the lips and the junction of the hard and soft palates or the posterior one third of the tongue. Over 95% of people with... read more Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma .

With gloved hands, the examiner palpates the vestibules and the floor of the mouth, including the sublingual and submandibular glands. To make palpation more comfortable, the examiner asks the patient to relax the mouth, keeping it open just wide enough to allow access.

The temporomandibular joint

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is assessed by looking for jaw deviation on opening and by palpating the head of the condyle anterior to the external auditory meatus. Examiners then place their little fingers into the external ear canals with the pads of the fingertips lightly pushing anteriorly while patients repeatedly open widely and then close. Patients also should be able to comfortably open wide enough to fit 3 of their fingers vertically between the incisors (typically 4 to 5 cm).

Testing

For a new patient or for someone who requires extensive care, the dentist takes a full mouth x-ray series. This series consists of 14 to 16 periapical films to show the roots and bone plus 4 bite-wing films to detect early caries between posterior teeth. Modern techniques reduce radiation exposure to a near-negligible level.

Patients at high risk of caries Caries Caries is tooth decay, commonly called cavities. The symptoms—tender, painful teeth—appear late. Diagnosis is based on inspection, probing of the enamel surface with a fine metal instrument... read more Caries (ie, those who have had caries detected during the clinical examination, have many restorations, or have recurrent caries on teeth previously restored) should undergo bite-wing x-rays every 6 to 12 months. Otherwise, bite-wings are indicated every 2 to 3 years.

A panoramic x-ray can yield useful information about tooth development, cysts or tumors of the jaws, supernumerary or congenitally absent teeth, 3rd molar impaction, Eagle syndrome (less frequently), and carotid plaques.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
ACHROMYCIN V
MINOCIN
COMMIT, NICORETTE, NICOTROL
No US brand name
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