Becoming infected with Lyme disease can lead to a plethora of different ailments, all of which could take months or years to develop after the initial infection. For those who seek treatment early, further complications could be avoided, but unfortunately this isn’t true in every case. This is because the Borrelia bacteria, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, can camp out in the tissues of the body and lie dormant before it wakes up to attack the body all over again.
Those with Lyme disease know how much of a struggle its symptoms can be. Some symptoms that late-stage Lyme disease can cause include arthritis; cognitive issues such as memory, concentration, and focus problems; lack of control over facial muscles; and chronic fatigue. But can Lyme disease lead to dental health problems?
Can Lyme disease cause dental problems?
The connection between dental health and Lyme disease isn’t widely understood. This could be due to the fact that dental symptoms are rarely at the forefront of the infection. The connection is there, though, and having Lyme disease can affect oral health in many ways. When it comes to dental health, specifically, Lyme disease can lead to a condition known as temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ).
TMJ disorders affect the temporomandibular joint – the joint that connects the jawbone to the skull. Each person has one joint on each side to ensure the proper opening and shutting of the mouth. When a person suffers from a TMJ disorder, they can experience symptoms such as pain in the jaw joint and muscles that are responsible for the movement of the jaw, and have difficulty opening up the mouth. Lyme disease can cause facial pain that can mimic or present as a TMJ disorder.
Lyme disease and tooth extractions
Lyme disease has also been associated with dental health problems because the bacteria can make their way from the initial bite site into the mouth and live in the dentin of the teeth. Tiny hollow canals known as dentin tubules create the perfect space the for the bacteria to travel around in. The bacteria can also be fed by other types that develop and live in root canals and other areas of the mouth where teeth have been extracted.
For those who have Lyme disease but don’t know it, getting a tooth extraction may end up exposing the Borrelia bacteria to the body and initiating a flare-up of the infection. Some studies have also found that a dental extraction can worsen symptoms in people who have chronic Lyme disease. In one particular study, a patient with post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS) experienced pain in the joints and muscles, along with other symptoms such as sleep disturbances, neurological deficits, and headaches. Following a dental extraction, the patient began to experience pain so severe they needed to be admitted to intensive care in the hospital.
(Note: none of the above should cause you to avoid essential dental work, as doing so can result in a whole different set of problems.)
Can Lyme disease affect your mouth?
Aside from the effects Lyme disease has on the joint that controls jaw movement, it can also affect the health of the mouth in general. Some oral symptoms that have been found in those with Lyme disease include dry mouth and pulpitis. Pulpitis is a form of inflammation that can develop when tooth decay is left untreated. It affects the dental pulp, and the main symptom is pain. The saliva glands may also become inflamed.
Some patients with Lyme disease may also present with burning mouth syndrome. This chronic condition is often presented as burning in the mouth that could affect the tongue, gums, lips, inside of the cheeks, roof or the mouth, or the entirety of the mouth. It may feel to the patient as if they have just burned their mouth on a hot beverage. For many cases of burning mouth syndrome, the cause is unclear. For those with Lyme disease, it is typically associated with neurological issues brought on by the bacteria.
The role of a Lyme-literate dentist
Some dental health professionals may be able to recognize the signs of Lyme disease in their patients through oral examinations. Many symptoms such as head and neck pain may prompt someone to visit a dentist rather than their primary care physician because they may conclude that their issue stems from a dental problem. For dental professionals to be able to suspect a Lyme disease infection and prompt further investigation, they need to be thorough with their inquiry about symptoms, health history, and social history. Dental professionals and other primary care physicians need to collaborate effectively when it comes to helping those with Lyme disease get diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
For those with late-stage Lyme disease, dental extractions can cause severe pain flare-ups among other uncomfortable symptoms. Living with Lyme disease can be difficult, but with effective and prompt treatment, those who have been bitten by an infected tick may lessen their chance of developing PTLDS.