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Why Are You Poking My Gums?

Posted By: Amanda Banks, RDH

You may have noticed that we sometimes take a few moments during your cleaning appointment to poke around your gums and then type something into the computer.  Some of you may be wondering why we do this.  The short answer that I often give patients is that I am taking measurements to check the health of their gums and look for gum disease and that I am typing said measurements into the computer.  Here’s a more in-depth description of what we are doing.

why are you poking my gums

What am I poking you with?

We use an instrument called a periodontal probe to measure the depths of the gingival sulcus (a.k.a. the space between your gums and your teeth, where your floss goes).  The probe is really just a very skinny measuring stick, with a rounded tip.  There are many different kinds of probes, but they all help us measure the depths of the sulcus, and determine if you have healthy gums, or if you have some amount of gum disease.

What are you looking for?

More severe forms of gum disease will result in bone loss, which leads to deeper measurements, and that is one of the main things we look for.  These areas with deeper readings are called “periodontal pockets.”  A healthy measurement will be from 1-3mm in-depth, and anything above that generally signals inflammation (we usually start calling it a pocket once we hit 5mm or above).  We also make note of any bleeding, as this is one of the earliest signs of inflammation.  We need to be able to classify the extent of the inflammation-based on these things.  Gingivitis is the early form of gum disease, and is often reversible, whereas periodontal disease is more severe includes irreversible bone loss.

Okay, so what did you find?

Based on all of the measurement we will classify you as having healthy gums, or as having some level of gum disease.  Gum disease is first classified by how much of it there is.  If it only affects a few teeth, we would consider it to be localized.  If it affects most of your mouth, we would call it generalized.  Based on whether bone loss has occurred, it will be labeled as gingivitis or periodontitis.  Further defined, there is a range of mild – severe for both gingivitis and periodontitis.  You can also have both classifications of gum disease.  Many people have generalized gingivitis with localized periodontitis.

gum disease chart

Cool, we have diagnosed my gum disease.  Now what?

If your gums are pretty healthy, you will do fine with a standard cleaning (called a prophylaxis or “prophy” for short).  If you have a little gingivitis, we will probably lecture you about flossing and see if you are able to improve on your own.  If you have periodontitis, we will either recommend a more involved cleaning in our office or send you to a dental specialist called a “periodontist.”

chart of health gums versus periodontal disease

Probing is an important part of our examination.  It helps us to determine where you are with your gum health, and that helps us help you.  Gum health has been linked to heart health, diabetes, and many other things.  So, do your part at home and floss daily, and hopefully we’ll give you a good report at your next visit!