Eating Disorders and Dentistry - What is Our Role?

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Eating disorders are psychiatric conditions resulting in inappropriate attitudes toward eating and body image and are often accompanied by improper and dangerous methods of weight control. It is estimated that more than ten million Americans are affected by these distressing illnesses, and most of its victims are teen and young adult women. The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa (intentional starvation), bulimia nervosa (binge-purge), and binge eating disorder (bingeing without purging).

As Dental professionals, we spend our days discussing brushing, flossing, decay, periodontal disease, and various other procedures, however, we may find ourselves at a loss when it comes to discussing eating disorders with patients. While we can’t diagnose eating disorders, we can alert the patient of any findings which may be indicative of these illnesses.

Dental symptoms of eating disorders include red and swollen gingiva (appears glossy), acid erosion mostly on the lingual surfaces of the maxillary and mandibular anterior teeth, mouth sores, xerostomia, TMD, swollen parotid glands, and redness and cuts on the soft palate. Another easy to identify symptom is cuts, calluses, or bruises on the knuckles as a result of forcing their fingers down their throat.

When broaching this discussion with a patient, we must provide an environment in which they feel comfortable and safe. It’s imperative that communication is free of judgment. Victims tend to keep their condition a secret due to shame, so it’s crucial to commend them for their honesty.

If the patient refuses to discuss the situation, we can still share our findings and educate and encourage them to follow up with their primary care physician. Eating disorders are potentially fatal, and by carefully addressing the situation, lives may ultimately be saved.

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