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Dentists Surprising Role in Treating Eating Disorders

Here Are The Facts

When most of us think about eating we associate it primarily with sustenance and pleasure. However, for a growing number of Australians, many of whom are young, the act of eating anything is a real trial, as they are one the increasing number of people suffering from an eating disorder. And, believe it or not, it is often their dentist who notices the problem first.

Eating Disorder Basic Facts  

According to The National Eating Disorders Collaboration, Australia is in this case right in line with the rest of the developed world, in that that the incidence of eating disorders and body image issues has increased significantly over the last 30 years.

The NEDC estimates that approximately 9% of the Australian population currently suffers from an eating disorder and that figure is increasing, with eating disorders now being the 12th leading cause of mental health hospitalisation in Australia. And perhaps most worrying of all is the fact that up to 1 in 5 of the afflicted will die prematurely.

As we mentioned before, the problem is especially worrying among younger people. In a survey conducted by the NEDC 84.3% of the 15-25 year olds interviewed said that they personally knew of a peer that they believed suffered from an eating disorder and 62% said they knew of five or more.

How Dentists are Helping Those at Risk  

No matter what kind of eating disorder a person is suffering from it is the norm that they are very secretive about both the problem and the behaviours it causes. It is very rare for them to voluntarily seek help alone, it usually takes the input of a concerned third party to persuade them to even begin to begin addressing their problem.

For the family GP, an eating disorder can be hard to spot, especially in a teenager or young twenty-something during a routine exam. The patient is not going to bring the issue up and fluctuations in weight are often considered fairly normal at this age. And as many young people are considered generally healthy they may not even visit the doctor anyway.

They probably do still visit the dentist though, at least once every six months, which is why it is becoming common that it is their dentist who notices a problem first. 

The Toll of Eating Disorders on Oral Health   

Eating disorders can - and do - take a real toll on the body, but much of this is not easily visible. Not everyone suffering is very obviously painfully thin and will often hide it even if they are with the way they dress. One place where symptoms and signs are more obvious however is the mouth, as eating disorders affect oral health in several significant ways. 

One big reason for this is the vomiting that is characteristic of eating disorders. Stomach acid is potent stuff, so the teeth of a person vomits on a very regular basis are often discoloured, or even almost translucent and may appear to be 'wearing away'. They may suffer from very bad breath, bleeding gums, tooth sensitivity, continually chapped lips and more, all of which a routine dental exam will reveal.

If a dentist does suspect an eating disorder problem they are in a great position to gently suggest that the patient begin seeking the right help. They can also help make sure that the damage to the teeth is minimised. As eating disorders are closely tied to image and self-esteem issues it can be very comforting for a recovering person to realise that they may not have damaged their teeth permanently and that like the rest of the body, they can be 'nursed' back to health with the right treatments.

Eating disorders are a serious issue but something that can be very hard to deal with. Parents who suspect their child may have a problem should consider scheduling them a dentist's appointment, as they should be able to spot the warning signs and help get the patient onto the treatment path they need to be on. 

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