What happens at the typical check-up appointment?

The typical dental checkup visit usually includes the following oral healthcare activities:

  • Professionals who will treat you: Two oral healthcare professionals - your dentist and the dental hygienist – will likely see you. The hygienist will conduct an initial oral exam of your gums. (Hygienists are not allowed to diagnose tooth or gum problems but can document them.) Hygienists document any changes in your overall health and medicine use, clean and polish your teeth, talk to you about caring for your teeth and gums, and answer any questions you might have about home care products. Your dentist will also conduct an oral exam of your gums and teeth, ask about changes in your overall health or medicine use, review the cleaning done by the hygienist, look for signs of oral cancer and other diseases, diagnose any oral health problems, and make treatment recommendations.
  • Cleaning: Although home-based tooth brushing and flossing help remove plaque, only a professional cleaning – provided by your dentist or dental hygienist – can thoroughly clean your teeth and remove the hardened plaque (called calculus or tartar) that builds up on teeth. Most hygienists use a series of metal hand instruments to clean your teeth. Some are using ultrasonic scalers, which provide deep cleaning above and below the gum line.
  • Polishing: After your teeth have been cleaned, they are polished to remove plaque and stains on the tooth surface. The polish contains an abrasive substance and fluoride, and is applied using a small rotating rubber cup or brush attached to the dental hand piece.
  • Prevention: Your hygienist might offer additional instructions for you to follow at home, based on the results of your exam. Don’t hesitate to ask your hygienist for instructions about brushing or flossing, or general care questions about your teeth and gums.
  • X-rays: X-rays may or may not be taken during your checkup. Your dentist will consider your oral exam, dental history, and risk for developing cavities to decide how often you need X-rays.
  • Treatment recommendations: If any oral health problems are found during your examination, your dentist will make recommendations for the best next steps. These might include referral to another oral healthcare specialist, additional diagnostic tests, or advice to return for restoration work (for example, fillings and crowns), or additional oral healthcare.

What is a comprehensive dental exam?

Comprehensive dental exams not only check for tooth decay and gum health but also examine your entire mouth, head, and neck area. This type of exam is generally given if you are a first-time patient to a new dentist, but should also be given periodically by any dentist you’ve been visiting for years. The comprehensive exam will likely include these evaluations:

  • Head and neck: Your dentist will look for any problems on your head and neck, as well as feel for any swelling or tenderness (which are signs of an infection or disease) in your lymph nodes and salivary glands in your neck area. Your dentist will also examine your temporomandibular joint (connects the jawbone to the skull) to make sure it is working properly.
  • Soft tissue: The soft tissues of your mouth include the tongue, inside of the lips and cheeks and the floor and roof of the mouth. These areas are examined for any spots, lesions, cuts, swellings or growths. These could indicate an oral health problem. The back of your throat and tonsil area will also be inspected.
  • Gum tissue: Your gums and supporting structures of the teeth will be looked at for signs of gum disease, which include red or puffy gum tissue and tissue that easily bleeds when gently probed. If you do have gum disease, your dentist may send you to a periodontist (dental gum specialist).
  • Occlusion: How well your upper and lower teeth come together will be checked. Your dentist might simply look at how your teeth meet or have you bite into wax if a more careful exam of your bite is necessary.
  • Clinical examination of teeth: Signs of tooth decay are looked for on the surface of every tooth. Your dentist will likely probe your teeth with a dental instrument, called an explorer, to look for cavities. (Decayed enamel feels softer when probed compared to healthy enamel.) Your dentist will also check for any problems with fillings, braces, bridges, dentures, crowns, or other restorations.
  • X-rays — Your dentist will assign a certified technician to take X-rays to look for signs of tooth decay, as well as for gum disease and other oral health problems.

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