Mainstream Western dentistry cleans your teeth, detects, drills and fills cavities and treats other dental problems with root canals, crowns, bridges, dentures, extractions — you know the list. These traditional treatment methods are augmented by alternative therapy dentists who offer mercury-free fillings, new technologies and other alternative dental therapies. Many of these practitioners combine a whole-body approach to dentistry with a willingness to invest in technological advances like laser therapy.
Holistic dentists aren’t that easy to find. They are small in number due to reasons apparently political, as well as economic. Political because the toxicity of mercury amalgam fillings to the human body is hotly denied by the American Dental Association and the 37,000-member Academy of General Dentistry as never having been scientifically proven. Economic because most insurance coverage won’t pay for the additional cost of non-mercury fillings, for having mercury fillings removed, for other alternative therapies or the extra cost involved in using the latest technologies.
Regardless, their practices are flourishing. For example, The Tooth By The Lake office in Hopkins, Minn., of Dwight Tschetter, DDS, is booked through February 2002. Dr. Tschetter is a member of the Holistic Dental Association, which promotes dental care as it relates to the entire person, as well as mercury-free dentistry. A dentist since 1975, Dr. Tschetter’s interest in alternative dental therapies was piqued when an 11-year-old patient named Denise walked into his office in 1984.
“She came in with all the symptoms of MS,” Dr. Tschetter says. “Tiredness, weakness, tremors, upset stomach, low energy, as well as ringing in her ears, chest pain, rashes, chills, couldn’t walk, couldn’t study. And all these symptoms had come about suddenly the day after she had two silver (mercury amalgam) fillings put in.”
Denise’s mother was allergic to mercury and aware of its toxicity, Dr. Tschetter recalls, and so brought her daughter in to see him about two weeks after she had the fillings put in.
“We removed the fillings, and within days, Denise was just fine again,” Dr. Tschetter reports. “With Denise and several other similar experiences, I just didn’t feel comfortable doing mercury amalgam fillings any more. I decided to go to mercury-free dentistry.”
Dr. Tschetter is well aware of the political ramifications of his decision. Not only the mainstream dental associations but also the state dental board (in Minnesota and most other states) have determined that mercury amalgam fillings have not been proven harmful to humans and that for dentists to recommend their removal is unethical.
“We follow the rules,” Dr. Tschetter says. “We tell people that what to do about mercury amalgam fillings is their choice; we don’t recommend removing them. We do it if they choose to have us do it.”
No one disputes that mercury is a highly toxic substance and that exposure to it is detrimental to humans. The position of the dental associations appears to be that mercury in dental amalgams is not poisonous. As the Academy of General Dentistry puts it, “When mercury is combined with other materials in dental amalgam, its chemical nature changes, so it is essentially harmless. The amount released in the mouth under the pressure of chewing and grinding is extremely small and no cause for alarm.”
At the same time, the “Directions for Use” for the mercury amalgam capsules used by dentists from one manufacturer provided by Dr. Tschetter states that the use of mercury amalgam is contraindicated (not recommended) for children under age 6 and expectant mothers. It also states that after placement of amalgam restorations, “there is a temporary increase of the mercury concentration in the blood and urine,” among other warnings.
Comments Dr. Tschetter: “The government has banned mercury in paint, mascara, contact lens solutions and vaccines. But not in our teeth. That makes no sense to me. The evidence is there.”
Several foreign countries have banned or severely restricted mercury fillings, and the state dental board in California in 1999 advised dentists to warn patients about the toxic effects of mercury. Arizona legislation last year required dentists to tell patients of the materials used in fillings, and this year Arizona legislators introduced a bill that would provide protections for holistic dentists who want to remove mercury fillings.
As the scientific and political debates about mercury amalgam fillings continue, individual consumers interested in whole-body health have options to consider related to their dental health, and the issues are much broader than just mercury fillings. Dr. Tschetter suggests that people consider alternative therapies for periodontal disease, such as laser therapy, as well as laser therapy for sterilizing their teeth, removing decay and sterilizing root canals. He also offers herbal topical treatments for gum disease and suggests that people consider not using conventional toothpaste with fluoride.
“Fluoride is more toxic than lead,” he says.
Less toxic alternatives to mercury for fillings are widely available. Paul Zollinger, DDS, who practices in the Cathedral Hill area of St. Paul, says he gradually evolved into a holistic approach to dentistry. This happened over time as he witnessed certain improvements in patients’ health after old amalgam fillings were removed for dental reasons.
“Also, I had an assistant who was pregnant, and I no longer felt safe using mercury. I found other materials that worked that weren’t as toxic,” he explains.
The composites that he, Dr. Tschetter and other dentists use for fillings are composed of materials such as glass, porcelain, gold and plastic. While not totally non-toxic, those materials have a much lower toxicity than mercury.
Dr. Zollinger also uses air abrasion instead of traditional drilling.
“No anesthetic is usually needed, it’s faster than regular drilling and these fillings can be 1/100 the size of traditional fillings,” he reports.
Dr. Zollinger, whose office sees 100 new patients a month, finds his holistic approach supported by individual patients, but not by the dental insurance establishment.
“It’s difficult to treat the whole person, because that isn’t part of our insurance system today,” Dr. Zollinger says. “For example, there are problems associated with grinding and clenching teeth such as TMJ, headaches, anxiety, backaches, face aches. Because insurance may not cover investigating these things, practitioners don’t always discover it, because they don’t get paid for discovering it. The whole system needs to change.”
Those winds of change are at least a slight breeze blowing right now in Minnesota dentistry. Even though there are only about 100 members of the Holistic Dental Association in the world — and only a few in Minnesota — a member of the association today sits on the Minnesota Board of Dentistry. Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed Ronald King, DDS, who practices in St. Louis Park, to the board in l999.
Meanwhile, consumers have the choice of seeking out a dentist who combines Western technology with holistic concerns and considering what, if any, alternative dental therapies may be right for them. In addition to using new laser technologies and providing alternatives to mercury amalgam fillings, some holistic dentists may offer blood chemistry analysis to determine biocompatibility before introducing any new type of filling into the mouth. They may offer short-acting anesthetics without the potential side-effects of the long-acting form.
They may reject the use of fluoride and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) because of potential harmful side-effects. They may provide nutritional support or herbal treatments for gum disease. These and many other options are available for individuals interested in pursuing them.
For additional information:
The Holistic Dental Association — www.holisticdental.org
The American Dental Association — www.ada.org
The Academy of General Dentistry — www.agd.org
Dr. Paul Zollinger’s website — www.smileworks.com and doing a “find a dentist” search for “Zollinger.”
An organization called Bio-Probe Inc. has information about mercury amalgam fillings and oral toxicity, including abstracts of scientific studies — www.bioprobe.com
The book Whole-Body Dentistry by Mark Breiner, DDS, a member of the Holistic Dentistry Association, details mercury toxicity, political issues and alternative therapies — available from Amazon.com.