Op-Ed: A visit to dentist can be life saving

By J. Ted Sherwin

Dr. Sharone Ward, a dentist in Chester and member of the Virginia Dental Association, recently saw a 51-year-old male patient in need of a filling. As she does routinely, Ward took the patient’s blood pressure and was surprised to find that it was 200/120, an extreme hypertensive value and well above the normal range of 120/70.

In light of her findings, Ward did not initiate any dental treatment but referred the man to his physician. The patient advised her that he had experienced headaches and pain in the back of his neck and was grateful for the warning. Following a visit to his doctor, who confirmed the high reading, he placed him on a stronger blood pressure medication and referred him for further testing. Ward’s observation may have saved his life.

Virginia Dental Association dentists like Ward are the hallmark of our “Want a Healthy Body? Start with a Healthy Mouth” campaign. Our 3,500 members encourage twice-a-year visits because check-ups not only ensure healthy teeth and gums but also provide us with an opportunity to check for other conditions like oral cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. You may have seen our TV commercials. The association is airing them statewide to remind all Virginians of the value of regular dental visits.

Oral health is an important part of overall good health, and prevention or early detection is key. The better everyone understands the academic and clinical expertise dentists provide — in addition to the fact that dental disease is almost entirely preventable — the better your chances of enjoying good oral health throughout your life. It’s as simple as visiting your dentist twice a year, and not just when you have a toothache or suspect another problem. Indeed, studies strongly suggest a connection between some major ailments such as heart disease, stroke and pancreatic cancer and the bacteria in the mouth responsible for gum disease.

Each year, 42,000 people nationwide are diagnosed with oral cancer, and some 8,000 will die from the disease. Few appreciate that statistic better than Nancy Leupold. Twenty-two years ago, her dentist noticed a suspicious legion on the floor of her mouth. Right away, he sent Leupold to an oral surgeon who performed a biopsy and found early signs of oral cancer. Within a month, doctors removed the tumor.

Leupold, who believes she’s alive today because of that early detection, became an evangelist for it, founding Support for People with Oral, Head and Neck Cancer. The organization now has 120 chapters around the country and provides resources for those suffering from these three types of cancer.

“As I think back on all the years that have passed, I am grateful to that dentist who saved my life,” says Leupold. “He enabled me to go on and help others in the same situation.”

We at the Virginia Dental Association share Leupold’s passion. That’s why we go beyond checking for cavities and gum disease. We also perform a thorough head and neck exam to make sure nothing is out of the ordinary.

A healthy body starts with a healthy mouth. Make time this fall – and again in the spring — for you and your family to visit the dentist. Learn how you can live a life free of cavities and gum disease and be an overall healthier individual too.

Dr. J. Ted Sherwin is president of the Virginia Dental Association