One of the mysteries Mary Otto unravels in her new book Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America is the divorce of dentistry from medicine. As a recent Atlantic article put it,
The body didn’t sign on for this arrangement, and teeth don’t know that they’re supposed to keep their problems confined to the mouth. This separation leads to real consequences….
Holistic, biological, and integrative dentistry, on the other hand, are based on the unity of mouth and body (not to mention body, mind, and spirit). And this is something we first explored back in summer of 2012…
Beyond “Just” Dentistry
It’s funny how people tend to make a distinction between dentists and “regular doctors.” Physicians are, by and large, all considered doctors even if they specialize in some isolated body part – ophthalmologists for eyes, say, or dermatologists for skin, podiatrists for feet – except for the mouth. When you do that, you’re not a doctor but a dentist.
Yet what is a dentist but a physician who specializes in the mouth, teeth and other oral structures?
Currently, 9 dental specializations are officially recognized:
- Dental public health, which focuses on dental epidemiology and public health policy
- Endodontics, which focuses on the inside of the tooth, or dental pulp (If you’ve ever had a root canal, you may have been referred to an endodontist – a dentist who specializes in this procedure .)
- Oral and maxillofacial pathology, which is concerned with diseases of the mouth and jaw
- Oral and maxillofacial radiology, which is concerned with x-ray and other imaging of mouth and jaw diseases and conditions
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery, which treats diseases, injuries and defects of the mouth and jaw
- Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics, which focuses on tooth and jaw alignment
- Pediatric dentistry, which focuses on the dental health of children
- Periodontics, which is concerned with the health and treatment of the gums and related oral structures
- Prosthodontics, which involves the replacement of missing teeth
And biological dentistry?
Even as more dentists are pursuing the extra education and training to specialize in biological dental medicine, it remains an unofficial specialty. But considering our ever-deepening understanding of the oral-systemic health connection, its a specialty on the leading edge.
This is because biological dentistry is most intently concerned with that connection. Sometimes called “holistic,” “whole-body” or “integrative” dentistry, it combines the best clinical practices of Western dentistry with the wisdom of other traditions, including Traditional Chinese Medicine. Knowing that local causes can have distant effects, the biological dentist always keeps the big picture in mind: the effect of dental conditions and treatment on the body, and vice versa. Thus, issues of biocompatibility loom large. So, too, issues of toxins such as mercury and fluoride: Their effects go far beyond the teeth.
Acknowledging that treating symptoms is not the same as treating – let alone preventing – disease, biological dentistry prefers therapies that support the body’s self-healing abilities. It favors nontoxic, nature-based remedies and a conservative approach to treating the teeth. As one colleague of Dr. E likes to say, “The best dentistry is the least dentistry.”
Image by Dr. Alper, via Flickr