Many of you may be surprised to learn that the good oral health goes beyond brushing and flossing. Here is a road map of various structures inside of our mouths and the role they play in speech and digestion.
In addition to our teeth, our mouth is made up of gums, oral mucosa, the upper and lower jaw, the tongue, salivary glands, the uvula, and the frenulum. All of these structures play an important role when it comes to good dental health and are routinely examined when you receive dental care.
The Oral Mucosa
Oral mucosa is a protective lining that covers everything except for our teeth. It is a mucous membrane similar to the mucous membranes that line our nostrils.
The oral mucosa plays an important role in maintaining your oral health, as well as your overall health, by defending your body from germs and other irritants that enter your mouth. Keratin, a tough substance also found in your fingernails and hair, helps make the oral mucosa resistant to injury.
Gums play a critical role in our oral health. Your gums are the pinkish tissue that surrounds and supports your teeth. Healthy gums are firm, cover the entire root of the tooth, and do not bleed when brushed or poked. Gum disease can eventually lead to tooth loss, so flossing daily is just as important to dental care as brushing your teeth.
The Upper and Lower Jaw
Did you know that your jaws give your face its shape and your mouth the structure it needs for chewing and speech? Our jaws are made up of several bones: The upper jaw contains two bones that are fused to each other and to the rest of your skull, while the lower jawbone is separate from the rest of the skull. This enables it to move up and down when you speak and chew.
Did you know that our tongue is a muscle? A powerful one, for that matter! The tongue is covered in a mucosal tissue that includes your taste buds. The tongue is not just important to your oral health — it’s also considered an integral part of the body’s digestive system — it’s responsible for moving food to your teeth, and when chewed food is ready to be swallowed, the tongue moves it to the back of the throat so it can proceed into the esophagus. In babies, the tongue and the jaw work together to enable the infant to breastfeed. The tongue also plays an essential role in our ability to speak by shaping the sounds that come out of your mouth.
The Salivary Glands
Saliva is critical to good oral health, because it protects your teeth and gums by rinsing away food particles and bacteria and by helping to counteract acidic foods that can wear down the protective enamel on your teeth. The salivary glands produce saliva, which contains special enzymes that help break down food, making it easier for you to swallow.
The uvula is that small flap of tissue which can be seen in mirror hanging down at the back of our throat. The uvula is composed of muscle fibers as well as connective and glandular tissues. Like other soft tissue structures in the mouth, the uvula is covered by oral mucosa. While its role has puzzled scientists for years, it is believed that uvula plays some role in speech and in keeping the mouth and throat moist.
The frenulum is a flap of oral mucosa that connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth. This tissue allows the tongue to move about as it does its job. If an infant is born with a frenulum that is too short, or not elastic enough, he or she can have trouble breastfeeding. A short frenulum can also affect speech.
The next time you’re brushing your teeth, spend a minute looking at the parts of the mouth other than your teeth. Knowing what these structures do and what they look like can help you to maintain optimal oral health.