In a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, methamphetamine users were found to have higher rates of dental and periodontal disease, with evidence of much higher rates of rampant decay and tooth loss. As dental students, we have all seen patients or have at least heard of patients in the student clinic being referred to as having “meth mouth,” which is characterized as blackened, stained, broken, severely decayed or missing teeth. These devastating dental conditions are caused by drug-induced psychological and physiological changes, such as dry mouth, high acidity, long periods of poor oral hygiene and grinding/clenching teeth, leading to damage. Due to the widespread use of meth addictions across the country, meth mouth is now a more commonly seen, severe type of addiction-induced dental decay.
Patients who have neglected their dental health while dealing with substance use disorder find themselves in pain due to severe decay and gum disease; many of them also have anxiety and stress about visiting a dentist after becoming sober. Having missing or decayed teeth, especially if it affects speech or the way someone looks when they smile, can not only influence how others see recovering addicts but how they see themselves. This can affect multiple aspects of their road to recovery and their life, from meeting others and developing healthy relationships to finding a job and reentering society. Furthermore, it is known that when those in recovery feel better about themselves, they are less vulnerable to relapse.
At the University of Utah School of Dentistry, a program called Project FLOSS was started to provide dental work to help patients become sober. Oftentimes, people see a person with severely decayed or missing teeth and assume they are on drugs, even if they are no longer using and recovering. The program aims to change society’s perceptions by providing restorative dental care to those in recovery. A study was completed on 286 patients in the FLOSS project and found that those who participated and were receiving dental care were 80% more likely to complete their addiction treatment programs. After completing the program, patients that took part in FLOSS were more likely to have stable jobs and find housing than those who did not receive dental care. In addition, students gained beneficial experience through participation in the program such as exposure to treating a vulnerable population of patients.
As dental students, most of us came to dental school with the goal of being able to improve the overall health and lives of patients by improving their oral health. We have dreams of boosting our patient’s confidence with a smile they are proud of. It is important for us to remember to come from a place of understanding and compassion when we see patients in our clinics and to not dismiss them as hopeless cases just because there was a period of time in their lives when they did not care for their dental health as much as they could have, especially in the case of former substance use disorder patients. We can play a crucial role in changing the lives of these patients, and we should take any opportunities we get to learn more about this population and the challenges they face.
~Stephanie Jaipaul, Georgia ’22, ASDA Electronic Editor