Alternative Dentistry - Herbs,
Hypnosis And More
By Fran Kritz
Trying aromatherapy to help you relax? Taking echinacea to fight the cold? These approaches may also work for you in a place you might not have considered: the dentist's chair.
"We'd like to add practices that can get us away from medical approaches such as Valium to calm our patients." - Joseph Perno, New Jersey Dentist
Organized Dentistry has yet to focus attention on alternative medicine anywhere near as much as, say, the American Medical Association, which recently devoted a full issue of its highly regarded Journal to studies on holistic medicine as part of clinical practice. But a growing number of dentists are currently testing and using various alternative therapies in the mouth.
A toothpaste, for example, made up of echinacea, goldenseal, calendula, aloe, bloodroot and grapefruit seed extract, was found in a three-month study to be as effective as a leading brand of toothpaste in reducing plaque and staining. And a preliminary study found that a mouthwash made up of the same herbs was more effective than Listerine in fighting oral bacteria.
This was all to the surprise of Warren Scherer, a professor of restorative dentistry at the New York University School of Dentistry in New York City, who has completed clinical studies on the two products. They are sold as The Natural Dentist's Herbal Mouth and Gum Therapy in natural food stores.
Scherer and several other researchers recently published their findings on the toothpaste and mouthwash in the Journal of Clinical Dentistry. "We were a bit surprised," says Scherer. "Before the study, I couldn't even pronounce echinacea. This may lead to more [dentists] learning about the benefits of herbs."
Acupressure: This technique of applying gentle pressure to various 'pressure points' on the body is used to relieve jaw pain due to bite irregularities.
Acupuncture: Very thin needles are gently inserted into specific points of the body to stimulate the flow of Qi, or natural healing energy. This may encourage relaxation and reduce pain during and after dental procedures.
Aromatherapy: Breathing in certain, pleasant scents may encourage relaxation during dental procedures.
Deep breathing: Taking in slow, deep breaths is thought to help ease anxiety.
Herbs: Echinacea, goldenseal and other herbs may help ease pain, reduce inflammation or fight infection.
Hypnosis: Inducing a sleep-like state is to help combat anxiety and pain.
Victor Zeines, a New York City dentist who developed the herbal mouthwash and toothpaste, says he has been using herbs and other alternative methods in his practice for years. "It's not just a question of using alternative means on teeth, but looking at the mouth as indicative of what's going on in the body," he says. "In Chinese medicine, they have 280 diseases that can be seen by looking at the tongue."
And how you treat your whole body affects your teeth, says Zeines. "A cavity doesn't just happen because you don't brush your teeth. It happens because the mouth's acid base balance is off," he says. "When the mouth is too acidic, the acid-loving bacteria start breeding prolifically, and if at the same time the minerals on your teeth are eroding away, cavities will develop. We do nutritional counseling with patients so that they take in the minerals they need." Zeines also uses aromatherapy in his office to relax his patients before they undergo dental procedures.
Interest Grows
As with other areas of medicine, interest in holistic practices for the mouth appears to be on the rise. The Holistic Dental Association, based in Durango, Colo., says it has 150 members and gets 100 calls a month for referrals to dentists who practice holistic medicine. Mindful of the public's demand for alternative therapies, many dentists are reluctant to simply knock these practices. "I'm not sure holistic medicine will interact with dentistry but I see that both consumers and dentists need more education," says NYU's Scherer. A spokesman for the Academy of General Dentistry says that "although we do not have a policy or position statement regarding alternative dentistry, the academy does recognize and credit a variety of continuing education courses that help the members stay up to date on the latest procedures and technology, including those on alternative dentistry."
And while dentistry may seem to be behind other areas of medicine in terms of alternative therapies, in some ways it may be light years ahead, says Joseph Perno, a dentist in Voorhees, N.J., and president of the AGD. Conventional medicine embraces alternative approaches most often to get patients to continue with a conventional regimen and to reduce stress associated with pain, disease and treatment; dentists have done that for centuries, Perno says.
Anxiety Abounds
"There are patients who would rather go in for standard surgery than visit the dentist's office, and over the years dentists have developed coping techniques for their patients, including music during treatment and deep breathing," Perno says. "We'd like to add practices that can get us away from medical approaches such as Valium to calm our patients." Many dentists have learned acupuncture and hypnosis to help patients through their pain and anxiety, says Shapira. And at the AGD's last annual meeting, dentists attended a session to teach them how to show patients to self-administer acupressure, a technique of applying pressure to various 'pressure points' on the body, to relieve the pain of temporomandibular disorders (known as TMD or TMJ). Pain occurs when the joint where the jaw is connected to the head is out of alignment or when the muscles surrounding the jaw malfunction due to physical injury or stress behaviors, such as jaw clenching and tooth grinding.
"Patients like acupressure because they can administer the techniques themselves, wherever they are, whenever they want. It gives them control over their pain," says Albert Forgione, a Boston dentist who discovered the acupressure points associated with the neck and jaw muscles. But there are some concerns with alternative methods, herbs in particular. Shapira became concerned when a nurse from his office passed out from a stimulant tea, which caused her heart to speed and skip beats. He says herbs can interact with and enhance the effects of drugs dentists use, such as epinephrine, a stimulant used to enhance the effect of lidocaine, a local anesthetic. Shapira advises letting your dentist know what herbs you are taking, though he concedes that dental associations will have to do much more to give dentists information about drug/herb interactions. He also recommends that patients avoid herbs when they are having dental work done.