Maintaining close collaborative relationships with my dental colleagues is one of the many benefits of my primary care practice. I never cease to be amazed by how much my dental colleagues know about medicine and how little I know about dentistry. But I do ask my patients how frequently they see a dentist because it is a powerful marker for what I am going to find during the oral examination.
Many of my patients seem to have trouble maintaining their native teeth. This is surprising to me given the abundance of options for dental care; and yet, not surprising when I remember that caries is the most prevalent disease worldwide. Oral health has a huge potential impact on overall health, and the control of dental plaque is the key to oral health. I typically do not recommend toothbrushes to my patients who have identified dental disease, but I may start doing this now that I understand more about toothbrushes.
Powered toothbrushes clean teeth through a variety of mechanisms: side-to-side action, counter oscillation, rotation oscillation, circular, ultrasonic, and ionic, just to name a few. They are more expensive than regular toothbrushes, but are they better for removing plaque?
An updated systematic review of the literature has been published comparing powered versus manual toothbrushing for the maintenance of oral health. Trials were selected if they evaluated at least 4 weeks of unsupervised toothbrushing. Fifty-one trials involving 4,624 participants provided data for the meta-analysis (Cochrane Database Syst. Rev. 2014;6:CD002281 [doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002281.pub3]).
Powered toothbrushes provide a statistically significant benefit, compared with manual toothbrushes, for the reduction of plaque in both the short (1-3 months; 11% reduction) and long term (longer than 3 months; 21% reduction) over manual toothbrushes. Powered toothbrushes also provide a statistically significant benefit in the short and long term for reduction in gingivitis. Most of the evidence is for rotation oscillation brushes.
So now I can give my patients a useful tip for maintaining oral health. Does improved plaque removal translate into general health benefits? We are uncertain, but it will certainly make for more enjoyable oral examinations.
Dr. Ebbert is a professor of medicine, a general internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine. Dr. Ebbert reports no disclosures. The opinions expressed are his alone and should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition nor should they be used as a substitute for medical advice from a qualified, board-certified practicing clinician.