Can Dentists Detect Eating Disorders?

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Millions of people suffer from eating disorders and in many cases dentists are the first line of defence when it comes to detecting them. One of the most common forms of eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, which is characterised by an inability to maintain a regular eating pattern. Unlike many other eating disorders, such as anorexia, where the sufferer is likely to be dangerously underweight, bulimia sufferers tend to be either normal or higher weight. This can often make it difficult to detect, especially as sufferers are often too embarrassed to talk about their problem.

The defining symptom of bulimia is the binge-purge cycle which is typically done using vast quantities of food and drink. The binge part of the cycle is usually followed by a range of purging activities which the sufferer believes will somehow compensate for the binge. Purging behaviours can vary but the most common way of 'un-doing' the damage of the binge is to induce vomiting. Other popular methods of purging include using diuretics, laxatives and different kinds of drugs. Not only does the binge-purge cycle have a profound psychological impact on the sufferer but can also lead to a range of adverse affects for the body including; dehydration, gastric reflux, inflamed oesophagus, oral problems, swollen saliva glands and a range of problems with teeth due to the acid contained in vomit.

Several of these symptoms can make detecting bulimia quite easy for a trained dentist. The erosion caused by the acid in the sufferers vomit is usually a clear sign of bulimia, along with bad breath and an inflamed oesophagus or salivary gland. Similarly, the constant acid attack on the sufferer’s teeth can often lead to tooth sensitivity. If a dentist detects a patient who suffers from an eating disorder, they usually refer them to a specialist who will try to counter the effects of the binge-purge cycle. They will also be given some basic training on how to counteract the damaging affect that purging can have on their oral health. For instance, immediately washing their mouth out with soda water and brushing their teeth with a soft brush and toothpaste. Unfortunately, in many cases, the eating disorder is not discovered until a great deal of problems have occurred in the body.

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