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What’s Up with Poking at My Gums During Cleanings?

A young kid smiles in the dentist chair

Have you ever wondered why your dentist starts rattling off a series of numbers to the hygienist in the middle of your cleaning? 2, 2, 3, 2, 4, 5! What’s going on there? What your dentist is doing is checking the depth of gum tissue pockets that surround your tooth. It’s a proactive way to identify your risk for gum disease, and when done regularly, can help catch it early. Dental probing is a pretty interesting exercise in dentistry, can save you from surgery and extractions, and here’s why.

Dental Probing Catches Problems Early

One reason to visit the dentist regularly is to identify problems in your mouth that you are completely oblivious to. Subtle changes in the health of our gum tissue can be missed by the naked eye, and some people – even those who visit a dentist regularly – can be prone to an excess buildup of plaque and tartar that can result in gingivitis and periodontal disease. Thankfully, your dental team can catch these changes early through the use of X-rays and the practice of dental probing.

The reason for probing is straightforward. As periodontal disease progresses, the visible markers of the disease (plaque and tartar) migrate down along the side of the tooth into the natural “pocket” between the ridge of the gumline and the tooth’s enamel. This inflames the gum tissue and widens this naturally slim gap between the tooth and gum. As this gap becomes wider, even more bacteria are allowed access to the sensitive tissue fibers along the root’s outer surface, causing more damage. This process may result in bone loss, and the need to extract a tooth. This is why probing is so important.  Gum disease can be insidious and I have had young patients who ended up losing all of their teeth at once to gum disease because by the time I saw them it was too late.  I have also caught gum disease early for many patients and I have no doubt they will keep their teeth the rest of their life.

How Does Dental Probing Work?

“Probing” is quite simple and is accomplished by using a dental “probe” to measure the depth of a tooth’s pocket. The probe acts like a ruler, and has markings along its side measured out in millimeters. To measure the depth of your tooth’s pocket, your dentist gently places the probe into this pocket and makes note of the depth. Those numbers you hear are the millimeter depths of your pocket. Six measurements are taken per tooth, three along the outside, and three along the inside of each tooth. A depth of three millimeters or under without any bleeding is generally accepted as healthy. Above that number, your dentist may suggest more thorough cleanings, including scaling and root planing, or something even more comprehensive if the number is above a five and nearing ten. 

So, as you can see, maintaining pocket health is critical, and proper brushing and flossing can help clear away plaque and prevent the tartar buildup that expands a pocket. Your dentist also plays a critical role in ensuring you’re staying ahead of gum disease, so be sure to keep your regular appointments – particularly if you have been identified as having periodontitis and recommended for more frequent, thorough cleanings. With a good routine and frequent visits to the dentist the only numbers you’ll be hearing moving forward should be 1, 2 and 3! Keep up the good work.