How do you know if you have periodontal (gum) disease? Sometimes your gums will tell you—when they’re red, swollen or bleed easily.
But your gums can also look and feel healthy while a gum infection still brews below the gum line. In this case, a regular dental visit could make the difference. Even without overt signs of infection, we may be able to detect gum disease with a slender metal instrument called a periodontal probe.
Gum disease is a bacterial infection that most of the time arises from dental plaque. This thin film of bacteria and food particles accumulates on tooth surfaces, especially because of poor or non-existent oral hygiene. A continuing infection can weaken gum tissues and cause them to pull away or detach from the teeth.
Normally, there’s a slight gap between the gums and teeth. But as the infected gums pull away, the gaps grow larger and deeper, forming what are known as periodontal pockets. They become filled with infection that soon spreads to the root and bone and increases the risk of tooth loss.
These pockets, though, could be the means for detecting a gum infection with the help of the periodontal probe. During a dental exam we gently insert the probe, which has millimeter depth markings etched on it, between a tooth and its adjacent gums. While a depth of 1 to 3 mm is normal, a probe measurement of 4 to 5 mm could be a sign of an early stage infection. A reading of 7 to 10 mm, on the other hand, may indicate more advanced disease.
Along with other factors, periodontal probing can be quite useful identifying both the presence and extent of a gum infection and then how to treat it. The goal of any treatment is to remove plaque and tartar (calculus) deposits that sustain the infection. But probing, along with other diagnostic methods like x-rays, could point to deeper infection below the gum line that require more extensive methods, including surgery, sometimes to access and remove the disease.
Achieving the best treatment outcome with gum disease often depends on finding the infection early. Periodontal probing helps to make that discovery more likely.