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Seeing beyond the tooth

MagazineDecember 2004 (Vol. 15 Issue 9)Seeing beyond the tooth

A man goes to the dentist and says, "I've got a terrible toothache"

A man goes to the dentist and says, "I've got a terrible toothache". The dentist takes one look at the tooth and says, "There's nothing wrong with that tooth. You need to get your intestines cleaned out". The man undergoes colonic irrigation and the pain in the tooth disappears.

Another man who's pulled a hamstring muscle goes to see his dentist for a check-up. The dentist makes a quick realignment of one of his teeth, and his hamstring problem is cured.

These seemingly fantastical cases are just a few selected from the patient files of David Hefferon, one of a small handful of holistic dentists in Britain.

In itself, holistic medicine is not new. In the 1980s, it was the buzzword for seeing the patient as a whole person, and also referred to the integration of a number of different medical systems, both alternative and conventional. The concept has taken years to arrive in the relatively staid world of the dental profession.

Nevertheless, holistic dentistry is now one of the fastest-growing branches of medicine. It has taken off in the US (where it's called 'biological dentistry'), and there's a growing band of practitioners in Europe.

Of all the medical specialties, dentistry has always been the one most set apart from the rest of doctoring. In terms of physical wellbeing, the teeth are seen to be almost irrelevant, with no apparent connection to either health or illness. This is an attitude that dentists themselves have reinforced. In Britain, for example, they have divorced themselves from the rest of the National Health Service (NHS).

But evidence is mounting that teeth are an integral part of health, with links to diseases in other parts of the body. For example, gum disease can almost double your risk of a heart attack, and low levels of vitamin B6 can cause tooth decay - two facts that your ordinary dentist is unlikely to have ever mentioned to you.

"Nutrition is just one of the tools I use," says Hefferon. "I also look at the patient structurally, energetically and chemically."

Central to Hefferon's approach is the way he has set up his clinic. Under the same roof as his high-tech dental surgery, he has gathered together a team of alternative therapists - a cranial osteopath, a herbalist, a nutritionist and a physiotherapist who specialises in energy medicine. "We each have our area of expertise, and there's lots of interreferring," he says. "For example, if something I'm doing in the mouth isn't working, I can get advice on what the underlying problems may be - and have them sorted out on the spot."

The importance of bite
One of the guiding principles of holistic dentistry is the importance of the 'perfect bite'. If the top and bottom teeth don't mesh correctly, this can set up stresses in the jaw. We open and close our jaws about 2000 times every day, so a bad bite will lead to chronic muscle stress. There are ligaments that connect the teeth to the jawbone, and these have stretch receptors that are constantly trying to readjust the jaw muscles to ease the stress on the teeth. This, in turn, creates spasms in the muscles surrounding the joint that connects the jaws to the skull - the so-called temporomandibular joint (TMJ).

Learning about the TMJ is essential for any holistic dentist because the jaw joint is linked to virtually every part of the body. The importance of the TMJ was first discovered by chiropractors and osteopaths, who called it 'the great impostor' after they discovered that TMJ dysfunction can be linked to a whole raft of problems that have no obvious connection to the jawbone. These include postural and back (spinal) problems, arthritis, headaches, and leg, neck or shoulder pain (J Am Dent Assoc, 1987; 115: 251-6; Minerva Stomatol, 2002; 51: 167-71; Acta Med Austr, 2004; 31: 18-22).

David Hefferon's hamstring patient is a case in point. He was a footballer who suffered recurrent hamstring injuries. At first, he went to an osteopath, who recognised that the problem was coming from the lower back; the back was treated and the problem went away - but only for a while. It was when he went for a routine dental check-up with Hefferon that the real cause of the muscle problem came to light.

Hefferon saw that the man's TMJ was misaligned due to a poor bite. "This had obviously been a long-term problem," says Hefferon. "His TMJ was out of true, and his body unconsciously tried to compensate - in his case, by permanently making the jaw jut out. This bent the spine, pushing the pelvis forward, upsetting the normal running position. This put undue strain on the legs, causing the chronic hamstring problem." Hefferon fixed the TMJ, and the hamstring problem has never recurred.

A similar case comes from American holistic dentist Dan Gole, of Michigan. One day, Gole was doing a TMJ-related tooth adjustment on a patient. When it was all done, he asked the patient how he felt. "The tooth is fine," said the patient, "but what's interesting is that the pain I've had in my foot for a couple of weeks has completely stopped."

New York dentist Frederick Milton specialises in using holistic dentistry to relieve chronic physical pain. Often, he finds that it's due to shoddy work done by other dentists. "Every time you swallow, your teeth touch and your body gets a neuromuscular reading off your teeth," says Milton. "If your teeth are maloccluding - for example, because of too prominent a filling or a crown - your body quickly readjusts. You won't be aware of this, but the readjustment will be chronic; this can sometimes result in chronic pain elsewhere in the body. And you will have no memory of how it started."

David Hefferon goes further: "The TMJ is the headquarters of the body's balance mechanism, and if the jaw doesn't close properly because of maloccluded teeth, the balance mechanism is forced to adapt. However, because it's under constant stress, the brain is pumping out lots of noradrenaline [norepinephrine] and serotonin. This sensitises the autonomic nervous system, making the patient vulnerable to any other stressors like bad diet or emotional problems. So depression, for example, could be linked to TMJ dysfunction."

Hefferon says 95 per cent of his patients have TMJ problems due to maloccluding jaws, but admits that he may be seeing a biased sample of people. "Most of my patients are rejects from other dentists, so I'm bound to get problem cases," he says.

Nevertheless, US dental expert James E. Carlson concurs with Hefferon's figure. "Ninety per cent of people have a problem with malocclusion," he says in a 500-page report on TMJ problems (Orthocranial Occlusion and the Accu-Liner System, Blue Pine Unlimited, 2000). "This may be because most people have underdeveloped jaws - probably due to diet."

It was in the 1930s that US dentist Dr Weston Price first proposed the theory that the lack of chewing required by modern eating habits has resulted in smaller lower jaws and "deformed arches" (the palates that connect the teeth) compared with our Neanderthal ancestors. This was Price's explanation for why overcrowding of the teeth is now so common in children. Price's theory sparked a huge debate that is still raging on today.

Big teeth or small jaws
The controversy over overcrowded teeth is focused on two main questions: why do they happen, and what should dentists do about them?

The prevailing theory is that overcrowded teeth are caused by a genetic error in the womb, where the developing child inherits its jaw from one parent and its teeth from the other. This leads to a potential mismatch, with the big teeth of one parent not fitting into the jaw of the other.

But not everyone agrees with this scenario. "The 'daddy's teeth, mummy's jaws' theory is not universally shared," says Hefferon. "The opposing theory says overcrowded teeth are the right size; it's just that we have inherited a smaller jaw because of thousands of years of evolution responding to a diet that doesn't require much chewing."

As far as solving the overcrowded-teeth problem, for most dentists, the answer is obvious: remove a few teeth to give the rest of them enough room - in other words, make the teeth fit the jaw. But a growing minority of dentists are saying: "These are perfectly healthy teeth, so why extract them?" Instead, they suggest making the jaw fit the teeth by expanding the jaw to accommodate them. This solves the problem by addressing its root cause - an undersized jaw.

This extraction/expansion debate is a huge issue within dentistry, with hotly argued positions on each side (see WDDTY vol 11 no 4, p 12). Holistic dentists tend to favour the expansion camp because they believe that extraction can often upset TMJ balance. This may then lead to a host of spine-related problems, such as poor posture, wrong breathing and back pain. However, partly because this is such a new field of study, the evidence is still mostly anecdotal (Orthod Fr, 1992; 63 Pt 2: 443-53).

Australian dentist Joseph da Cruz is another holistic dentist with a growing international reputation (to contact him, see: www.wholisticdentistry.com.au). He has developed a simple jaw-expansion device that is claimed to be a major advance on the usual 'functional appliances' as it requires fewer fixings to the teeth, making it considerably easier to wear. "It avoids or minimises the need for tooth braces, thus helping the flow of cerebral fluid in the spine," he says.

Although it's mostly children who are treated for overcrowded teeth, adults can benefit from jaw expansion, too. One of David Hefferon's cases was a 60-year-old businessman with such chronic backache that he could no longer travel. A small expanding device on the lower jaw stopped the backache - and the man is now happily flying all over the world.

Unlike conventional braces, jaw-expansion devices work incredibly quickly. Joseph da Cruz has before-and-after photos showing remarkable changes after as little as three months, including a noticeably more attractive facial appearance.

Holistic dentists also deal with cavitations - holes in the jaw, often at the site of an old extraction, such as a wisdom tooth, or under a root-canal filling - which can occasionally affect the entire jaw. Cavitations can lead to facial pain, headache and neuralgia, and phantom-tooth pain. The treatment is to clean them out and encourage bone to grow back through nutritional support.

A complementary programme
But the real promise of holistic dentistry is that it offers an entirely new way of looking at the connection between teeth and general health. In doing so, it is exploring how alternative medicine can be brought into the dental surgery - with astounding results.

Take acupuncture, for example. Years ago, this was only thought useful for pain relief - teeth have been extracted with nothing but acupuncture analgesia. But the benefits of acupuncture are far subtler than that; it is now believed that every tooth is linked energetically with different organs in the body via the acupuncture meridians.

This knowledge can turn conventional dentistry on its head. In the case of the patient with toothache cured by a colonic, he had suffered acute pain for weeks and arrived begging to have the tooth removed. But Hefferon could see nothing wrong with the tooth. "I knew that acupuncture theory says this particular tooth is connected to the colon, so it didn't take more than a few questions to discover this man had an intestinal problem," he recalls. "I advised him to get his colon irrigated, and the tooth pain vanished."

Hefferon takes things even further by using colour therapy. "If the patient needs calming or if I'm working on a tooth connected to the kidney, I will give him blue protective glasses to wear," he says. Hefferon also uses his knowledge of the martial arts to teach his patients qi gong breathing techniques. "Poor breathing causes acidity in the body which impairs mercury detoxification," he says.

Indeed, in moving on from being oral carpenters, holistic dentists offer a model for medicine as a whole.

Tony Edwards


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