Wilderness Dentistry

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Chapter 30 Wilderness Dentistry

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This chapter discusses the signs, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide variety of emergencies, from minor to life threatening, associated with the mouth and its related structures. The common toothache can cause excruciating pain and ruin an otherwise wonderful wilderness experience. Major oral trauma and severe dental infections, although rare, can cause significant morbidity or even become life threatening. A basic knowledge of dental conditions can prove very useful to anyone venturing into the backcountry. This chapter also covers administration of local anesthesia for dental emergencies and suggests what to add to the first-aid kit to assist in handling and treating dental emergencies.

History and Examination

History taking for dental emergencies proceeds as with any other condition. In emergency situations, the chief complaint and history of the present illness deserve greater emphasis than family, personal, and social history and review of systems. However, the presence of complicating medical factors or chronic illness may prove very important in choosing the proper treatment. Many commonly used medications have bearing on dental diagnosis and treatment. Emphasis on the need for subacute bacterial endocarditis (SBE) prophylaxis, bleeding disorders, immunosuppression, allergies, and current medications is a good start. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons2 recently changed their recommendations to state that persons with total joint replacements should receive antibiotic prophylaxis before invasive procedures. The American Heart Association recommendations for SBE prophylaxis have also changed recently and are listed in Boxes 30-1 to 30-3. Note that premedication is no longer recommended for patients with most types of heart murmurs.50

BOX 30-1

Antibiotic Prophylaxis for Dental Procedures for Patients With Cardiac Conditions

Data from Wilson W, Taubert KA, Gewitz M, et al: Prevention of infective endocarditis: Guidelines from the American Heart Association—A guideline from the American Heart Association Rheumatic Fever, Endocarditis and Kawasaki Disease Committee, Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young, and the Council on Clinical Cardiology, Council on Cardiovascular Surgery and Anesthesia, and the Quality of Care and Outcomes Research Interdisciplinary Working Group, J Am Dent Assoc 139:3S, 2008.

Begin with open-ended questions before focusing attention with more specific questions. As information is collected, one can begin to focus attention on the more specific characteristics of pain to help attain a diagnosis. It is useful to know when symptoms started, frequency, severity, duration, how they change over time, what brings them on, and what allows relief.

The examination focus depends somewhat on the examiner’s suspicions. However, in all cases a systematic approach to examination in oral and maxillofacial emergencies allows efficient collection of all relevant data. Begin the examination with a general appraisal of the victim that optimally includes temperature, blood pressure, and pulse rate. How sick is the patient? Observe the head, neck, and face, especially noting any asymmetry. Palpate to appreciate point tenderness, crepitus, foreign bodies, or swelling. Palpate the temporomandibular joints, muscles, lymph nodes, and areas of suspected injury. Observe the victim slowly open and close his or her mouth, observing for degree of opening, range of motion, and deviation on opening.

Begin the intraoral examination with the lips, then move back to the cheeks, floor of the mouth, tongue, hard palate, soft palate, and pharynx. In addition to inspection, palpation is very important. Swelling may turn out to be rock hard (bone) or fluctuant (abscess). Bimanual palpation is helpful when examining the lips, cheeks, and floor of the mouth. The gingiva is observed for color, firmness, recession, and swelling. Gentle probing reveals the depth of the gingival pocket and the presence or absence of bleeding. The teeth are inspected for caries, fractures, presence of plaque and calculus, wear, and loose restorations. Test for tooth mobility by using moderate force in a side-to-side direction. Gentle percussion of the teeth with a metal instrument reveals injury or disease of the supporting structures. Inspect occlusion by retracting the lips and then having the victim occlude the teeth (bite). The victim may feel pain when biting on a specific tooth, or you may see that the teeth do not come together normally. Radiographs and other technology-dependent diagnostic tests are valuable but for purposes of this chapter are assumed to be unavailable. Gather the results of your history, examination, and tests to formulate the proper diagnosis.

Maxillofacial Pain

The causes of maxillofacial pain are myriad, and the diagnosis of head and neck syndromes can be exceedingly difficult.32,33 The most common painful conditions are covered below. If the victim’s symptoms do not seem consistent with a dental origin, other causes should be suspected. Examples of disorders that are sometimes confused with dental pain are myofascial pain, maxillary sinusitis, temporal arteritis, and trigeminal neuralgia. Box 30-4 lists others. Table 30-1 shows the characteristics of specific types of tooth-related pain that can assist the examiner in sorting out a diagnosis.


The common toothache is caused by inflammation of the dental pulp. It may be difficult for the victim to identify the offending tooth due to convergence of neurons in the trigeminal spinal tract nucleus.9,26 The painful tooth is rarely sensitive to percussion or palpation. An obvious cause, such as a large carious lesion, is sometimes found on examination of the mouth, but often all of the teeth appear intact. If inflammation is mild, the condition is characterized by pain that is elicited only by cold or sweets and disappears within seconds when the stimulus is removed. Moderate pulpitis is characterized by sensitivity to hot as well as cold, greater discomfort, and an increasing interval between the removal of the stimulus and resolution of the pain. In its most severe form, pulpitis causes intense, continuous, and debilitating pain.6,9,33 Emergency treatment recommendations are given in the following sections.

Severe Pulpitis (Intense, Continuous Pain)

The preferred approach is pain relief using a local anesthetic, followed by evacuation of the victim.35,47 A nerve block with bupivacaine (Marcaine) 2% with 1 : 200,000 epinephrine can provide up to 8 hours of excellent pain relief without central nervous system depression (see Local Anesthesia, later). Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) will probably give little relief. Large doses of narcotics should not be used because they are likely to compromise the victim’s ability to participate in evacuation. Sometimes application of cold (continuously sipping cold water) provides relief to the hyperemic pulp. In an extraordinary circumstance, an experienced rescuer could locate the offending tooth, expose the pulp, remove the inflamed pulpal tissue with a barbed broach, and cover the opening with a temporary filling material. Extraction is also an option in a case of severe pulpitis but is usually contraindicated for a number of reasons (see Exodontia, later).

Cracked Tooth Syndrome

The victim complains of momentary, sharp pain when chewing certain foods or on releasing the bite. Often the victim reports that the tooth feels “weak” or that “it only hurts when I bite on something hard just the right way.” These symptoms occur when forces of the proper magnitude and direction open the incomplete fracture in the tooth.37 The pain can vary with a cracked tooth depending on how deep the crack is and how close it comes to the pulp. Significantly, there is no pain on chewing soft foods. Often the victim has large restorations or a habit of chewing ice or clenching and grinding.22 This condition usually progresses slowly. Reducing the occlusion on the cracked tooth will relieve some pain but again is often impractical in the field. The victim should be advised to avoid chewing on the affected side and to seek definitive dental treatment as soon as possible.

Maxillary Sinusitis

The pain of maxillary sinusitis can be referred to a maxillary posterior tooth. It is usually described as a relatively continuous throbbing ache that is intensified by postural change. A typical statement is, “My tooth really hurt when we were hiking down the hill. I could feel it pound with every step. When we got to camp, I lay down, but it got even worse.” The pain may be unilateral or bilateral. It is usually located in the infraorbital region and is often referred to the cheeks, frontal region, and the maxillary premolars and molars. A complaint of multiple toothaches in the maxilla, with no evidence of carious teeth, should immediately raise suspicion for maxillary sinusitis. In addition to pain, there is tenderness elicited by pressure infraorbitally or over the bony prominence above the first molar. The victim also generally has an elevated temperature and nasal or postnasal discharge.

Treatment of maxillary sinusitis includes an analgesic (ibuprofen 600 mg PO every 6 hours as needed for pain), inhalation of steam, oxymetazoline (Afrin) 0.05% 1 spray in each nostril twice a day to shrink the nasal membranes and improve sinus drainage, and an antibiotic. Appropriate choices include amoxicillin 875 mg with clavulanic acid 125 mg (Augmentin) PO twice a day for 10 days or trimethoprim 160 mg with sulfamethoxazole 800 mg (Septra DS) PO twice a day for 10 days. Azithromycin (Zithromax) 500 mg PO the first day and then 250 mg PO for 4 days is a convenient alternative.1,19

Temporomandibular Disorder

Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is a cluster of conditions, multifactorial in origin, and with overlapping symptoms that often respond to a variety of therapies, including placebos.31 If the victim answers “yes” to any of the following questions, he or she may suffer from TMD: Does it hurt to open the mouth widely or yawn? Do you have earaches or pain in front of your ear? Is your pain worse in the morning? Have you had trauma to your face or jaw? Do you have temporal pain or headaches? Has your jaw ever gotten stuck open or closed? Does your jaw pop or click on opening or closing?

Included under the term TMD are two groups of sufferers: those with primary masticatory muscle involvement (myofascial pain and dysfunction [MPD]) and those with internal derangements of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Patients also may present with a combination of both types. Internal derangements, traumatic injuries, and dislocation of the joint are covered in Chapter 31.

Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction

Muscle hyperactivity is an important etiologic factor in MPD. In some persons this may result from parafunction (gum chewing, clenching or grinding the teeth). Occlusal interferences can also cause muscle hyperactivity. This occurs when a lower tooth contacts an upper tooth prematurely during mouth closure and a reflex causes jaw muscle contraction that shifts the mandible in such a way as to avoid the premature contact. For this reason this condition is often referred to as an “occluso-muscle disorder.” Psychological stress is also an important factor in causing excessive muscle tension.25

Participants in wilderness activities are exposed to many of the risk factors for MPD. The high physiologic and psychological demands of many expeditions lead to considerable stress. Increased jaw function, such as that required to chew granola, beef jerky, and other dried foods common on wilderness expeditions, is another factor that may precipitate an acute episode of MPD.

Symptoms of MPD include pain in the muscles of mastication that is usually unilateral and increased with chewing, headache, earache, limitation of jaw movement, and a change in the bite. Pain originating in the muscles of mastication is often referred to the teeth, so the chief complaint may be a toothache.26,40 The victim may have a history of acute onset, or a long saga of exacerbation, remission, and various treatments.

The examiner may find objective signs, such as tenderness of the jaw muscles to palpation, muscle spasm or “knots,” and abnormal jaw movements, such as inability to open the mouth widely, or deviation of the chin to one side on opening. Tenderness to palpation of the TMJ or joint noise suggest the victim has an internal derangement of the joint.25

Emergency treatment consists of resting the muscles (soft diet and control of tooth clenching and grinding habits) and the application of moist heat. Holding a soft material such as a folded gauze between the front teeth or use of an athletic mouth guard often gives immediate relief because it keeps the teeth from touching and allows the muscles to relax. An analgesic should be given on a scheduled basis (ibuprofen 600 mg PO every 6 hours), rather than as needed, to break the cycle of muscle pain and spasm. A muscle relaxant, such as cyclobenzaprine hydrochloride (Flexeril) 10 mg PO 3 times a day, or sedatives, such as diazepam (Valium) 2 to 10 mg PO 3 times a day, may be helpful if the primary treatment is ineffective. Muscle relaxants and sedatives, especially in higher doses, can cause significant central nervous system depression, so they should be used in the lowest effective dosage and only if more conservative therapy has failed.10,31,42

Miscellaneous Lesions

Aphthous Ulcers

It is thought that aphthous ulcers may represent a local immune response with various triggers such as stress; trauma; immunosuppression; nutritional deficiencies of vitamin B12, folic acid, or iron; acidic foods; and food allergies; to name a few. The lesions are round or ovoid in shape with a yellowish center and a red border and usually occur on nonkeratinized, movable mucosa (Figure 301). They can be quite painful. The victim usually gives a history of similar ulcerations. There are three types of aphthous ulcers. Minor aphthae are less than 0.6 cm (0.2 inch) in size and usually last 10 to 14 days. Major aphthae are larger than 0.6 cm (0.2 inch) and may last weeks or months. Herpetiform aphthae are clusters of small, shallow ulcers that resemble intraoral herpes.

Many treatments have been proposed, but none has been found predictably effective. The best approach appears to be application of a topical corticosteroid to reduce pain and hasten healing by 3 to 4 days. Mix fluocinonide (Lidex) 0.05% ointment with Orabase and place the mixture gently over each ulcer 6 to 8 times per day, especially after meals and before bedtime. Do not mix the medications until you are ready to apply them, and do not rub the mixture into the lesions. Other options include premixed preparations, such as Kenalog in Orabase, applied to the ulcer 6 to 8 times per day, which is more convenient but delivers only about 10% of the antiinflammatory effect, or dexamethasone (Decadron) elixir (0.5 mg/5 mL, rinse with 5 mL for 2 minutes and expectorate 4 times a day). Finally, a systemic corticosteroid (prednisone, 40 mg PO once daily for 3 days, then taper) may be used for a very severe case. If these preparations are not available, tincture of benzoin or a topical anesthetic (viscous lidocaine 2%) can be applied to the dried surface of the ulcer before meals and at bedtime to control the pain.15,45

Bisphosphonate-Related Osteonecrosis of the Jaws

Oral bisphosphonates such as alendronate (Fosamax) are widely used to treat osteoporosis, and intravenous bisphosphonates, such as zoledronic acid (Zometa) are used to manage skeletal involvement in various cancers. A side effect of these medications can be delayed healing of exposed bone in the maxillofacial region. Altered bone metabolism persists long after the medications have been discontinued. Bisphosphonate-related osteonecrosis of the jaws (BRONJ) may occur after bone is exposed by acute trauma, by chronic trauma such as from an ill-fitting dental prosthesis, from dental surgery, or after tooth extraction. The incidence after tooth extraction in patients that have taken oral bisphosphonates is less than 1%. The risk for BRONJ in patients that have received intravenous therapy is estimated between 0.8% and 12%.3

The diagnosis of BRONJ is made when exposed, necrotic bone persists for at least 8 weeks in a patient currently or previously treated with a bisphosphonate who has no history of radiation treatment to the jaws. Small lesions may be asymptomatic (Figure 30-2, online), whereas some exposed areas become infected, as evidenced by pain, erythema of the surrounding soft tissue, and possible purulent drainage. Prevention of BRONJ focuses on avoiding bone exposure in patients at risk. Emergency management consists of eliminating pain, controlling infection, and limiting the progression of bone necrosis. Asymptomatic lesions are treated with an antibacterial mouth rinse such as chlorhexidine. BRONJ that is painful and infected is treated with an antibacterial mouth rinse as well as an antibiotic, such as penicillin V potassium 500 mg PO 4 times a day, cephalexin (Keflex) 500 mg PO 4 times a day, or clindamycin 150 mg PO 4 times a day, and pain control. Evacuation for surgical care is indicated in cases of BRONJ complicated by any one of the following: pathologic fracture, extraoral fistula, or necrosis extending to the inferior border of the mandible.3,27,38

Maxillofacial Infections

Viral Infections

Herpes labialis (cold sore, fever blister) is the most common oral viral infection. It is characterized by yellow, fluid-filled vesicles that rupture to leave ragged ulcers on the lips (Figures 30-4 and 30-5). Other locations for recurrent herpetic outbreaks include the palate, tongue, and buccal mucosa. The victim can be given valacyclovir (Valtrex) 2 g PO twice daily for 1 day, with doses taken about 12 hours apart.43 It is important to begin treatment as soon as the victim becomes aware of a prodromal “tingle” or paresthesia. There is some evidence that the same regimen of valacyclovir can prevent outbreaks from occurring.8,29

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