The Numbers Your Hygienist Is Calling Out During Your Checkups

posted: March 20, 2018

For years, I never knew what my ophthalmologist was looking for when he shot that puff of air into each eye. I finally asked. Now, knowing it is a test for glaucoma makes it a little easier to tolerate.

As a dentist, I felt the same thing may apply to those 6-month dental checkups. During this time, your hygienist takes a small ‘probe’ and runs it along 3 positions at the base of each tooth and on both sides. During probing, you may hear her record numbers three-at-a-time, such as 3-3-2, 2-3-2, 1-2-2, 2-3-3, etc.

What do these numbers mean?

What you may not know is how these probes have measurements near the blunted tip. A dental probe is actually a gauge that shows the depth between your tooth and the gum tissues that surround it. Depth? Allow me to explain.

Of course, your teeth are more than the white, enamel-coated portions you see in the mirror. Each tooth is wrapped tightly with gum tissues at its base. Gum tissues help to seal bacteria from penetrating the structures below.

As you know, each tooth has roots that we can’t see. The root portion is what is anchored into the upper or lower jaw, giving the tooth a firm foundation and the stability necessary for biting and chewing.

The portion of your teeth that is beneath the gums is not coated by protective enamel as the portion of the teeth we see. The root areas are very sensitive. This is why darker, tooth root areas appear when the gums recede. This is the reason you may experience a jolt of pain when drinking hot or cold when these sensitive areas are exposed.

Not only are these parts of the tooth highly sensitive, they are more susceptible to the penetration of oral bacteria. When bacteria accumulation eats away at healthy gum tissues, it can weaken the gums and interfere with their ability to keep the tight seal around teeth.

The numbers your Hygienist is calling out during the probing part of your cleaning indicate how far down the gum tissue has loosened from the tooth (the depth). The higher the number, the farther down the probe can go. So, like a golf score, a lower number is better.

Hearing 1 or 2 is good. That means the probe is unable to go down into the gums or can penetrate only slightly. A 3 means there is room for improvement. Perhaps you were not as thorough when brushing at certain angles around back teeth. Or, you weren’t flossing often enough to remove food particles caught between teeth. When oral bacteria builds, the gums react by becoming inflamed.

This inflammation is what causes the gums to feel tender. If you dread a cleaning because it is uncomfortable, it’s likely because your gums are sensitive due to inflammation. They may also appear more red in color versus a healthy pink and be swollen in some areas. This is the same reaction you’d have from a cut on the skin that is becoming infected – it becomes red and swollen.

Naturally, hearing a 4 or a 5 from the hygienist is not good. These numbers indicate trouble. The higher numbers indicate a depth that is due to bacterial overload that has created inflammation.

Periodontal (gum) disease is the nation’s leading cause of adult tooth loss. Yet, research has found that the potent bacteria of gum disease is linked to a number of serious health problems far beyond the mouth.

Oral bacteria of gum disease can enter the bloodstream through tears in diseased gum tissues. It has been shown to cause inflammatory triggers that contribute to diseases and conditions that range from cancer to stroke. (https://www.humana.com/learning-center/health-and-wellbeing/healthy-living/gum-disease-and-health)

When you take good care of your oral health at home and have regular dental checkups, you’re doing more than protecting your pearly whites. You are keeping your gums healthy, which in turn help to support good overall health.

At your next hygiene visit, ask your hygienist how to have all 1’s and 2’s. She’ll develop an individualized program that works well for you. Thorough, twice-daily brushing and daily flossing can help you avoid expensive repairs for cavities and gum disease as well as mean a more comfortable dental cleaning.

If you are behind on regular dental checkups, call 843-871-6351 to schedule. We’ll be happy to help you get back up to speed!