If you're part of any kind of arthritis community, you'll know that one of the things that we talk about a lot is having problems with our teeth. It is common for people with arthritis to have dental issues, and particularly people with rheumatoid having issues with gum disease.
Is there really a connection?
The links between gum disease and rheumatoid have been identified for centuries. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates used to advocate pulling out teeth to cure arthritis.
We also have medical papers going back to the 1900s that talk about this link between arthritis and dental issues. Now, at this point, you might say, “Well, yeah, it's really obvious! If you've got sore hands, then how can you clean your teeth properly? Of course, you're going to get problems!” And that's part of it.
It is very true that it can be really challenging to clean your teeth properly or look after your dental health when you have arthritis. I've certainly had those challenges and I had major problems with gum disease (which I'll come to a bit later on) but I'd like to start off by just exploring whether there's a bit more of a deeper link around this.
What the research found
Johns Hopkins did quite a bit of work looking at the link between rheumatoid and gum disease. They looked at 100 rheumatoid patients, and they discovered that 70% of those patients had gum disease. That's quite a high percentage, because gum disease is usually only prevalent in 35% of the general population. So, they discovered that the likeliness of gum disease is much higher for people who've got rheumatoid. Then they did some more research, and they actually got as far as identifying a type of bacteria that is present in both gum disease and rheumatoid.
At this point, it wasn't really clear what's causing what. So, while they've identified this bacteria that is present in both conditions, it is not clear if having gum disease causes the presence of the bacteria which can then trigger rheumatoid, or people with rheumatoid have a bacteria that cause gum disease. It’s not entirely obvious, but some other medical institutions have done some studies to try and figure this out.
In 2009, Case Western Reserve University did something really interesting: they took patients with rheumatoid and treated their gum disease. They found that rheumatoid symptoms improved in those patients, which definitely suggest some kind of link.
Fast-forward to 2018, the Leeds Institute of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Medicine ran another study, and they concluded that gum inflammation may trigger rheumatoid.
What does this mean for arthritis patients?
First of all, I would say, do not take my word for any of this because I am not a medical researcher and I'm not a doctor. I have provided links to some of these studies and articles at the end of this post, but I strongly encourage you to do your own research.
I'm a rheumatoid patient who's had lots of dental problems, who went off and dug around about this to try and find out what was going on. Mainly because neither my rheumatologist nor my dentist have ever mentioned to me that there may be some link. I just got frustrated with having major problems with gum disease, and I decided to do my research.
I encourage you to do the same if this is something that's an issue for you, and I would also really encourage you to talk to your rheumatologist and your dentist.
How to make brushing teeth easier?
To me, the research on this suggests that there is a link between these conditions. And that means that I take my dental health very seriously because if there's any chance that my dental health may be triggering something with my rheumatoid or maybe exacerbating it off, I want to do everything I can to look after my teeth.
That takes me back to something I said earlier, and that is how difficult it is to locate your teeth when you have arthritis. I have a finger that doesn't bend and a wrist that doesn't bend, so between those two things and also just generally having swollen painful fingers, I used to find it very, very difficult to hold a manual toothbrush, and that's because they're so thin. I would find it really hard just to grip them.
I tried some of the things that people suggested: I tried wrapping them with tape. I tried doing chopping off a bit of a pool noodle, and sticking my toothbrush into the piece of foam. And that did help. It was easier to hold, but I used to find it just very difficult to clean my teeth for long enough without my hands getting too painful.
So, I took the time to invest in a lovely fat-handled electric toothbrush, and this kind of revolutionized it for me. Even though these kinds of toothbrushes are quite pricey, for me, it's worth it because I just wasn't doing very well with a normal toothbrush.
For me, it was worth the investment, and what I'm hoping is the investment in electronic toothbrush comes back to me because I don't have to pay so much to go to the dentist and get my teeth cleaned out.
It can be really difficult looking after your teeth when you've got arthritis. Toothbrushes and floss are not necessarily geared up for arthritic hands.
What I found helpful was taking some time to find the products that made it easier for me to get on top of cleaning my teeth.
It's really important to talk with your dentist or rheumatologist about this. If you're finding you're having lots of teeth problems and you do have arthritis, particularly autoimmune rheumatoid arthritis, then definitely bring the subject up.
There’s lots of research going on about the link between gum disease and rheumatoid. There's lots of information out there, and I strongly encourage you to have a look at it. I like to try and keep on top of anything new that's coming out, and I'm hoping that, as more research comes out, these links will become clearer. And who knows? They could even lead to future possible treatments for both conditions.