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Your Dentist Is More Important to Your General Health Than You May Realize

03/29/2016 02:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 29, 2016

Most people view their twice-yearly visits to the dentist as little more than a cleaning and a check-up. But in reality, those visits are much more important than you probably realize.

That's because your dentist is looking inside your mouth for a lot more than cavities.

Plenty of medical conditions -- including some alarming ones! -- manifest in the mouth, which is the part of your body your dentist knows the most about. In fact, it's possible that your dentist is able to alert you of a potentially serious condition long before you even think about going to a primary care doctor.

Here's a list of some of the medical conditions that your dentist may detect.

Acromegaly
When a pituitary adenoma (cancer) occurs, it causes the gland to secrete excess growth hormone. While this hormone is essential for early development, allowing it to go unchecked results in multiple systemic complications, which can eventually lead to death. What your dentist may notice are sudden and increased spacing between your teeth, and the formation of an anterior open bite.

Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI)
The most common inherited bone disease, OI results in a deficiency to produce collagen, resulting in brittle bones prone to fracture. Atticus Shaffer (Brick from ABC's The Middle) has the condition. People are usually diagnosed with OI if they break bones in situations where a person normally would not. However, there are key signs in your mouth a dentist can look for that may provide an early diagnosis. The teeth might appear blue or brown. Or, dental X-rays could show teeth with abnormally large dental pulps (the nerve of the tooth) and thick enamel. OI patients tend to have a class III malocclusion.

HIV/AIDS
Although it's not too common in 2016 for an individual to be unaware of her HIV status, more than one in eight people living with HIV don't know they have it. Dentists have a unique role not only when it comes to identifying individuals with new HIV infections, but also when it comes to noticing whether HIV-positive patients have experienced any changes in their progression.

There are several signs we see in the mouth that are strongly associated with HIV infections. Kaposi's sarcoma is a tumor that forms in the mouth and is primarily associated with HIV infections. Persistent swelling of the lymph nodes, specifically in the head and neck area, are seen in up to 70 percent of new HIV infections. HIV infection is also linked with certain periodontal diseases, and specific types of gingivitis. White patches on the side of the tongue, known as oral hairy leukoplakia, may also be visible.

Of course, these signs on their own do not necessarily signal HIV infection, but when seen together, your dentist may recommend you see your primary care doctor. And if an individual undergoing HIV therapy shows these signs, it may indicate that a change in treatment is needed.

Crohn's Disease
Many people are aware of the gastrointestinal condition called Crohn's disease, which often results in severe cramping, abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. What many people do not realize is that these GI issues can be preceded by oral signs. Your dentist might notice a "cobblestone" pattern in the mouth, along with deep, linear ulcers where the lip meets the gums. Another common sign of Crohn's is mucogingivitis: patchy, red plaques in the gums.

Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea happens when we stop breathing while we sleep. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea, which happens when the airway is blocked by the relaxed tongue and throat.

People might suspect they have sleep apnea if they are tired throughout the day, or if their partner yells at them for snoring all night. But your dentist knows that there is another key sign: the wearing of your teeth from clenching and grinding. That's because patients with sleep apnea grind their teeth to move their jaw forward, which pulls the tongue off the back of their throat, thus allowing them to breathe. If sleep apnea is left untreated, it can result in high blood pressure and heart disease. Some researchers also suggest sleep apnea can result in erectile dysfunction, but the scientific findings here aren't, um, firm.

All of the conditions outlined here are treatable, which is all the more reason for you to make regular visits to your dentist. Like your primary care doctor, your dentist is an invaluable part of your personal health care.

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