As part of the digestive system in the human body, the teeth are one of the first points of contact from mouth to stomach. Teeth break apart foods and start the process of digestion that continues on down to the belly and beyond. When teeth aren't working well together at getting food crushed, other body parts, acids and fluids have to step it up and compensate, leading to belly aches and digestive pains. Keeping teeth in good working order, however, also can lead to some stomach upset. In many ways, it's all connected.
Dental work includes all of the cleaning, filling, restoring and other procedures performed in a dentist's office, and almost all of the time, activity is centered in the mouth alone. There is stretching, biting, drilling and rinsing as well as pulsing, filing and painting -- none of which involves a person's stomach, but all of which can have an effect on how the stomach feels. Sometimes even thinking about going to the dentist can make your teeth hurt, but what about your stomach?
Anxiety and stress wrapped into dental fears may cause bellyaches before a dentist appointment. Opening wide for the work during a session might lead to gagging, choking, and swallowing debris and fluids, and foreign matter in the throat and stomach is a recipe for discomfort upset. All of the jaw tension, Novocaine and pain can linger with a patient after a dental appointment, bringing a queasy, uneasy nauseousness with it. And, chewing may be less efficient after dental work as numbness wears off and jaws resettle into a comfortable position, during which time food may not be chewed as well, leading to more stomach upset.
Some people experience little or no stomach issues in connection with dentistry, but others know it's an inevitable part of caring for teeth. Can dental work itself cause an upset stomach, or is it just the body's response and how we handle all of the activity and instruments in our mouths? Why are some prone to it and others immune?
Next we'll look at how righting your teeth can upset your stomach.
Pain, the Senses and the Stomach
"Down the hatch" is a great lead-in or toast before putting something delicious in your mouth, but it has also crept in as an expression before taking an unpleasant dose of medicine. "Open wide" is similar because it's used for feeding someone a sweet chunk of cake or giving a baby a spoonful of bananas, as well as for getting a dental patient to open up for mostly unpleasant tastes and objects.
Craving a bite of food comes with the anticipation built up through sight, smell and hunger -- all adding to the enjoyment of the taste buds. Anticipating a dental visit, on the other hand, can assault the senses with a very different set of experiences for the eyes, nose, ears and mouth. It is doubtful that many individuals enjoy the smell of teeth being drilled and pulsed as hardened plaque, calculus and bits of old dental work and decaying teeth are broken down. It's no wonder the stomach can react to the bad sensory stuff as well as the good.
Add to these senses pain, discomfort, fear and even memory of past dental visits, and the connection between the mouth and stomach is even stronger. Feeling the hurt of the teeth in the pit of the stomach may be partly psychological or psychosomatic in that it conjures feelings and responses before a single sharp tool makes it into a patient's mouth. At root, though, the mouth-to-stomach connection is a natural progression from one part of the body to another and often the body responds to pain or discomfort by radiating the sensations through the nerves.
Using fluoride, Novocaine or other numbing agents, pain killers or even anesthesia all help alleviate pain during and after dental work is performed, but what helps the mouth can really do a number on the stomach, especially if it's empty. Medications of all kinds usually come with instructions for taking with food or on a full stomach or sometimes on an empty stomach, but agents used for dental procedures are formulated for the mouth and aren't dispensed to a patient beforehand. Unfortunately, during dental work, swallowing, spraying and trickling of saliva mixed with medicine is fairly common, no matter the preponderance of water sprays and suction tubes going in and out of the mouth while the teeth are getting fixed or cleaned.
And what about all of that activity taking place in your mouth while you're in the chair? We'll look at some other sickening dental procedures and preventions, next.
Nausea, Queasiness and the Teeth
Another gut reaction happens for some people whether medications are used or not. Many individuals have a strong gag reflex, where the impulse to retch any foreign objects starts, not in the far back of the throat or epiglottis, but in the mouth itself. Often this triggers muscles in the pharynx-to-esophagus-to-stomach design to contract, release and possibly churn up some acids. Other patients have issues with jaw alignment, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) or neck and shoulder pain that causes a type of vertigo. This dizziness creates nausea when the alignment of the head and jaw over the neck and shoulders is tweaked during procedures where the mouth is forced open for too long.
Allergies and pre-existing conditions such as infections also can make the stomach hurt during dental work. Individuals with latex or rubber allergies can get sick from exposure to gloves or dental implements made with rubber. People with gum disease or tooth abscesses also can get ill from drainage of bacteria into the stomach. Others may have bugs or viruses prior to their appointments that are aggravated by having to lie in a reclined position on their backs.
If you've experienced stomach upset before, during or after a trip to the dentist, taking a look at when it happens may help prevent it next time. Going in with an empty stomach or too full a stomach may lead to queasiness or indigestion simply from the positioning of the chair and the smells in the office. Dentists have experience in helping patients with a strong gag reflex, and they can limit the amount of instruments and fingers in a person's mouth, as well as work to help them breathe through their nose while completing the work.
If the sick feeling starts before you ever step foot in a dental office, letting the hygienists and dentist know about any negative past experiences in the chair may give them a chance to make adjustments and keep you calm and comfortable. And any bad reactions after Novocain, anesthesia or antibiotic treatment should be passed on from dentist to dentist and from one procedure to the next to prevent a recurrence.
Problems with TMJ or any pain leading to nausea might be lessened if you take frequent breaks to close your mouth or rest and massage your jaws. Many dental professionals are trained to work with pain management and sometimes even will break up treatments into separate visits to avoid too much discomfort, whether it starts in the mouth and messes with the stomach or the other way around.
Knowing your stomach triggers can keep the upset in your mouth rather than down the hatch, so open wide and take a deep breath, maybe through your nose next time.
Read more tips on tooth care on the following page.
More Great Links
- Harvard Medical School. "Anesthesia and How to Prepare for It." Harvard.edu. Jan. 2005. (Oct. 9, 2011) http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Anesthesia_and_how_to_prepare_for_it.htm
- National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Toothaches." NIH.org. Feb. 22, 2010. (Oct. 8, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003067.htm
- Scarborough, Donna, et al. "Altering the Gag Reflex via a Palm Pressure Point." Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA), ADA.org. 2008. (Oct. 9, 2011) http://jada.ada.org/content/139/10/1365.full
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Your Digestive System and How It Works." NIH.org. April 2008. (Oct. 8, 2011) http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/yrdd/
- WebMD. "Dental Abscess Overview." WebMD.com. 2009. (Oct. 8, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/dental-abscess