Why are my gums receding?

Take a good look: If you see gum recession, it's time to talk with a professional.
Take a good look: If you see gum recession, it's time to talk with a professional.

When the tides recede, they expose the shells on the beach before rolling back in and covering everything up again. When your gums recede, they reveal the roots of your teeth -- but then they just keep on shrinking back. And, unlike nautilus and conch shells, the roots of your teeth aren't something anyone wants to display.

Gingival recession, the term for receding gums, is more than an aesthetic issue. Exposed roots make teeth sensitive to heat and cold and increase your risk of cavities, too.

Many people don't even notice that their gums are receding until the recession is advanced. It's a gradual process, and you might not discover the difference until your teeth seem to look a lot longer than they used to.

The soft tissues that anchor your teeth to the bone underneath them, when they're healthy, are coral-colored, and they hug your teeth like a turtleneck -- nice and snug.

In some people, the tissue around the bone is thinner. It's not their fault; it just grew in that way, possibly as a result of prominent roots, large or unfortunately placed muscle attachments or previous orthodontic work [source: Qualey and Valentine].

Thin gum tissue can also be caused by trauma, however, like overzealous tooth brushing and teeth grinding, or bruxism. Grinding and jaw clenching put your teeth under a lot of pressure, and that kind of pressure doesn't come without consequences. Besides headaches, sensitivity and a sore jaw, bruxism can also loosen the teeth's position in your gums. The solution is a night guard that you can get specially made for you by a dentist. Insurance usually covers part of it, and it will keep your sleeping self from crunching through the night.

As for the aggressive brushing -- that's an easier fix. Get a good toothbrush (a soft one), and learn how to brush properly. Here's a hint: If you're scrubbing away back and forth like your teeth are a washboard and your toothbrush is a heavily stained shirt, you're doing it wrong.

All tooth surfaces are not created equal:

  • Outer and inner surfaces: Tilt your toothbrush to a 45-degree angle and use short strokes.
  • Chewing surface: The part where it's OK to use the washboard technique! Go back and forth with your toothbrush held flat.
  • Inside of front teeth: Brush up and down with your toothbrush held vertically.

Next up, let's look at some gingival recession treatments.