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Dentists Can Detect Eating Disorders

Changes in mouth can signal possible problems, experts say

THURSDAY, Oct. 23, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Physical changes in the mouth are often the first signs of an eating disorder.

Dentists and their staff need to watch for any signs of eating disorders so they can refer people to professionals who deal with those kinds of disorders, says Barbara J. Steinberg, clinical professor of surgery at Drexel University College in Philadelphia.

She made a presentation Oct. 23 at the American Dental Association's annual session in San Francisco along with Shirley Brown, a dentist and clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders.

It's estimated that about 5 million people in the United States have eating disorders.

"The mouth reflects the rest of the body. A patient's oral status may be indicative of an eating disorder, particularly bulimia, when it involves chronic bingeing and vomiting," Steinberg says in a prepared statement.

Frequent vomiting and nutritional deficiencies associated with eating disorders can seriously affect oral health. As many as 89 percent of people with bulimia have signs of tooth erosion caused by repeated exposure to powerful stomach acid.

Over time, there can be considerable loss of tooth enamel. There are changes in tooth color, shape and length, and teeth can also become translucent, brittle and sensitive to temperature.

Other possible oral signs include swollen salivary glands, which cause the jaw to widen and appear squarish. A person may suffer chronic dry mouth and their lips may become reddened, dry and cracked.

In extreme cases, the pulp of the tooth may become exposed. That can lead to infection, discoloration or pulp death. In cases of pulp death, the patient may require a root canal or tooth extraction.

"Dentists can treat the oral effects of eating disorders, but they need to keep the patient's overall physical and mental health in mind, too, particularly since anorexia and bulimia are associated with a fairly high rate of suicide," Brown says.

"By referring patients with suspected eating disorders to appropriate health-care professionals, dentists and the dental team may play a crucial role in helping to save their patients' lives," she adds.

More information

Here's where you can learn more about eating disorders.

SOURCE: American Dental Association, news release, Oct. 22, 2003
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