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Receding Gums: Causes & Treatment

By Claire McAdams ; Updated August 14, 2017

Gingival recession, or gum recession, occurs when the protective tissue around the base of a tooth erodes, leaving the root of the tooth exposed. This condition can accrue over the course of several years, and may go unnoticed by the patient until it becomes more acute. If left untreated, gum recession can cause tooth sensitivity and can also lead to further gum and bone loss.


Toothbrush abrasion--brushing your teeth in an overly-aggressive, horizontal pattern--is one cause of gum recession. This practice causes the enamel at the base of the tooth to eventually wear away, exposing the dentin, the section of the tooth that contains the nerve. A second cause of gum recession is periodontal disease, or gum disease. Improper or infrequent brushing and flossing allows plaque to accumulate along the gum line. Once it hardens into tartar, or calculus, it causes the gums to pull away from the teeth.

Symptoms and Appearance

As the gums recede, the teeth will appear longer and gaps may form between them. The exposed dentin may also cause tooth sensitivity to hot, cold or sweet food and beverages. If toothbrush abrasion caused the recession, the gum line forms into "V" shaped notches and the surface of the tooth to assumes a concave shape. If gum disease is the culprit, chronic bad breath may accompany the condition.


Without the protective enamel coating, the base of the tooth is much more vulnerable to decay. If periodontal disease is present, the gums will form deep pockets in which millions of toxic bacteria reside. Over time, the toxins emitted by these bacteria erode not only the gum tissue, but the support bone underneath the gums that anchors the tooth. If a significant amount of bone tissue is lost, the tooth will become loose.


One possible treatment is to attach bonded resin restorations to the exposed areas of your teeth. In this procedure, your dentist adheres a tooth-colored plastic material to the affected area that can then be shaped and polished to match the surrounding teeth. For significant gum loss, your dentist may recommend a gingival tissue graft. This procedure requires a periodontal surgeon to extract soft tissue from the roof of the mouth and transplant it to the area that has worn away. The newly-integrated tissue slows further gum recession and bone loss and protects the exposed root from decay.


Prevent the advent or continuation of gum recession with proper oral care and regular visits to the dentist. Use an ADA-approved soft-bristled toothbrush and replace it every three to four months. Brush your teeth two to three times per day and floss at least once per day. Place the toothbrush at a 45 degree angle from the tooth's surface and use short, up and down strokes. If you already have some gum recession, position your toothbrush so that the sides of the bristles, rather than the ends, make contact with the tooth. This will help prevent further tissue destruction.

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