Although causal factors are not clear and researchers agree that more intensive studies are needed, findings show a clear link between tooth loss, gum disease and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The body of evidence is undeniable, according to doctors at the University of Minnesota and Johns Hopkins University; studies across the globe during the past decade point to a significant correlation, with some groundbreaking results. Whether there is an underlying disease process, a responsible gene, or a particular bodily enzyme at fault is less defined, but the association has been shown to exist even in juvenile patients.

The correlation between RA and gum disease is just the latest link in the chain of evidence suggesting that oral health is related to overall well-being. Untreated oral infections, tooth loss and periodontal problems have been shown to increase risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems. There may also be a relationship to Alzheimer’s disease.

Sorting Out the Clues

Researchers worldwide focus on following leads and tracking data. Approximately a decade ago, it was determined that citrullination, a process that transforms the molecular structure of protein, is present both in RA and in periodontitis. In some individuals, this process triggers an immune system response that causes the formation of antibodies to attack a foreign substance. These specific anti-CCP antibodies are present in severe RA, and a common bacteria found in periodontal disease prompts the same protein transformation.

An “Aha” moment occurred when it became clear that treating periodontal disease also eased swelling, reducing pain and aiding mobility for RA patients. A question still remains about whether poor oral health may be used as a predictor of RA. It is a fact, based on current studies, that early treatment of periodontal problems may decrease joint inflammation or even forestall progression of rheumatoid arthritis. Some risk factors for RA, including smoking, are also associated with higher incidence of periodontal disease.

The Main Message

While it is impossible to conclude that poor oral health habits cause rheumatoid arthritis, enough evidence exists to suggest that taking care of your teeth and gums is good for your overall health. Rheumatologists and dentists alike agree on the importance of regular dental examinations. Mountain Top Periodontics & Implants specializes in treating gum disease in an effort to save your teeth, maintain your smile and assure a healthy mouth.

Dr. Jeanne Salcetti is a Board-certified periodontist with extensive implant experience; she uses laser technology, as well as both surgical and non-surgical procedures. Throughout her career she has taken an active part in professional organizations, and served as president of the Colorado Dental Association in 2007-2008. Dr. Salcetti, who has practiced in Colorado Springs since 1995, was named a 2014 Woman of Influence by the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

She is co-founder of a ‘study club’ for local restorative dentists, formed to “elevate knowledge and clinical practices” in the area. Dr. Salcetti is as committed to the well-being of her patients as she is to her profession. She notes that “her proudest moment” was being elected as the CDA’s first woman president in 121 years. She credits her ‘general dentist’ father as her lifelong mentor, saying that “the apple didn’t fall far from that tree.”

This article was originally published and partially updated since March 3, 2015.