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What causes gum recession and can it be prevented?

Q. What causes gum recession and can it be prevented?

A. Gum recession is the gradual loss or retraction of the soft tissue of the gums, eventually exposing the roots of the teeth. Unlike the visible part of your tooth, which is buffered by a hard coating of enamel, the roots are much more vulnerable. One of the first signs of gum recession is teeth that are highly sensitive to cold and heat at the gumline. Gum recession is a common problem, and if left untreated over time it can leave teeth more susceptible to cavities and infection.

Gum recession tends to progress slowly over time and gets worse with age. One cause is gum disease, or an inflammation of the gums. Other contributing factors are poor oral hygiene, tobacco use, and a genetic predisposition to thin bones and gums. Terrence Griffin, chair of the department of periodontology at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, says that “for most people the problem is an anatomical defect.’’ Teeth that are not set properly in the bone of the jaw and stick out are at higher risk of gum recession. For that reason, he says, recession is sometimes seen later in life in people who have had braces, because teeth have been moved outward to reduce crowding. Sometimes brushing too vigorously can wear down the gums, but Griffin says that with today’s softer brushes it’s rare to see gum recession caused by abrasion. Clenching and grinding the teeth at night can exacerbate the problem, and wearing a bite guard at night may help in those cases.

For the most part, however, gum recession “is very difficult to prevent,’’ Griffin says. Orthodontics to fix prominent or crooked teeth may help ward off recession at those sites. Good oral hygiene and regular cleanings of tarter buildup by a dentist can help keep teeth free of gum recession caused by gum disease.


Early treatment is the best way to avoid tooth decay, tooth loss, and infection. Gum grafting surgery is the most common treatment and often involves taking tissue from the roof of the mouth and attaching it to remaining gum tissue. Because tissue removal is painful, several alternative graft materials are available. Griffin, for instance, has developed a graft that uses a patient’s own platelets to regenerate gum tissue, and artificial graft materials are also now available.


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