Skip main navigation

Military Health System

Clear Your Browser Cache

This website has recently undergone changes. Users finding unexpected concerns may care to clear their browser's cache to ensure a seamless experience.

Why Dental Health is Essential for Warfighters and Military Readiness

Image of U.S. Air Force Major Rachael Parrish, 20th Dental Squadron general dentist, performs an oral exam on Airman 1st Class Amie Bickford, 20th Equipment Maintenance Squadron munitions technician at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, March 13, 2017. Airmen assigned to the 20th DS are tasked with ensuring airmen and soldiers on base meet all dental class requirements for deployment. U.S. Air Force Major Rachael Parrish, 20th Dental Squadron general dentist, performs an oral exam on Airman 1st Class Amie Bickford, 20th Equipment Maintenance Squadron munitions technician at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, March 13, 2017. Airmen assigned to the 20th DS are tasked with ensuring airmen and soldiers on base meet all dental class requirements for deployment (Airman 1st Class Christopher Maldonado, 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs).

To help service members understand the importance of healthy teeth, some dentists use military-style terminology.

Tooth decay is an "enemy you are fighting" and you need to "execute a plan to eliminate that foe," said Air Force Col (Dr.) Robin Fontenot, a consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General for expeditionary dentistry.

Fontenot compares routine dental check-ups to aircraft maintenance.

"For our patients in the maintenance world, I like to relate these visits to PM (or preventive maintenance) on their equipment. It's a lot less costly to perform preventive maintenance on any piece of equipment than it is to wait until failure," Fontenot said.

By all criteria, dental health is a key component of "readiness," both for individuals and for units.

About one in five non-battlefield injuries reported by deployed service members are related to dental problems, Fontenot said.

And for those service members who are not up to date on their routine dental screenings, the risk increases significantly.

"A force that is not dentally prepared may see a five-fold increase in deployed dental emergencies," Fontenot said.

Among the greatest concerns is the risk of acute and painful teeth problems, ones that would make it difficult for a person to focus on their mission and might require immediate dental treatment.

More broadly, oral health is important for your whole body. Lack of good dental-oral health can lead to bacterial infections or other conditions that may be serious and affect readiness and mission capabilities.

A key responsibility for military dentists is to decrease the levels of dental emergencies and urgent care requirements during a deployment. That mission "gets at the very core foundation of why we have routine dental appointments" before deployments, Fontenot said.

"These appointments get a member to a best case state of oral health and set up an easier process of maintenance. By getting the annual dental exam and regular dental cleaning, we have established conditions that will lessen the likelihood of dental emergencies."

Linking Oral Health and Overall Health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes how cavities, also known as tooth decay or dental caries, are the greatest unmet health treatment need worldwide.

"As a dentist, I see dental health as a very fundamental need just like proper nutrition and physical fitness," Fontenot said.

He pointed to numerous studies that show the relationship between periodontal disease and systemic disease such as diabetes and coronary heart disease. "Not that people with systemic disease also have increased incidence of periodontal disease, but it is the fact that periodontal disease exacerbates the systemic conditions. So if you ask where the absence of dental health ranks as a problem—my opinion is 10 out of 10."

"Regular check-ups once a year and radiographs when required ensure treatment of dental disease early with the best materials and the best techniques," said Air Force Col Jay Graver, chief, Defense Health Agency Dental Clinical Management Team. Dental Readiness is a component of the Individual Medical Readiness program.

"The mouth is a gateway to the body," Graver said. "Bad oral hygiene can lead to systemic issues. Additionally, it can lead to problems with eating, which leads to poor or inadequate food intake." Those factors could negatively affect personal and mission readiness.

"If you don't keep up with your oral hygiene, it's a slippery slope to tooth decay, gingivitis, and abscesses," Graver said.

If decay progresses, "you are prone to more invasive treatment, such as root canals, crowns or tooth removal. If gum conditions such as gingivitis are not treated they can lead to periodontitis, or gum abscesses, he said.

The Remedy

Fontenot's main advice is to "master oral health."

"It is not enough to push the brush over your teeth once or twice a day in order to check the box. It is the understanding of the invisible enemy you are fighting, and to develop and execute a plan to eliminate that foe," Fontenot said.

"It is perfecting the art of brush and floss manipulation so that plaque and bacteria never have the opportunity to ruin your day."

Lower first molars are the most commonly restored teeth in the mouth, Fontenot noted. "As much as I would like to say that dentists are perfect, our materials are not. Restorations can fail and require replacement."

The most common tooth to require endodontic treatment, crowns, and the most common tooth (beyond wisdom teeth) that require extraction is the mandibular first molar. Those are the sixth tooth to the right and left of your front teeth.

"Extraction of any tooth within the arch demands properly timed replacement, so my second piece of advice is after you master oral health, put it to work on your mandibular first molars," Fontenot said.

Dental fitness is one of eight domains in the Department of Defense's Total Force Fitness framework. The framework builds healthy habits and improves the military's mission capabilities. Although dental issues make up less than 20% of patient visits, service members' medical readiness depends on healthy teeth.

Dental specialty training provides unique, readiness-focused capabilities such as dental forensics, osteo-stabilization, soft tissue suturing, treatment of maxillofacial infections, triage concepts, intravenous fluid or drug administration, environmental decontamination, and military working dog root canal therapy and prosthodontics.

"Our job as dentists in the military is to keep our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen ready for deployment, and we have the full spectrum of care capabilities to support and optimize care of the armed forces' dental health," Graver said.

You also may be interested in...

Article Around MHS
Oct 6, 2023

U.S. Navy Capt. Brown’s Road to Excellence Leads to Inspire

U.S. Navy Capt. Cecilia Brown, a maxillofacial oral surgeon at Naval Hospital Jacksonville Dental Clinic, provides care for a patient. Brown, a native of Sparta, Georgia, is the first African American female to complete the U.S. Navy Oral and Maxillofacial Surgical Residency program and the only African American oral surgeon in the Navy. Brown says, “Life is like a 4-way stop.” (U.S. Navy photo by Deidre Smith, Naval Hospital Jacksonville/Released)

For Naval Hospital Jacksonville Director for Dental Services, U.S. Navy Capt. Cecilia Brown, demanding excellence amid adversity has been a charging force in her story of success. Brown is the first African American female to complete the U.S. Navy Oral and Maxillofacial Surgical Residency. This has also positioned her to be the only African American ...

Article Around MHS
Sep 29, 2023

Real Life Falls Are Not a Laughing Matter: Protect your Body, Ego

Each year thousands of military personnel injure themselves because of falls from vehicles and equipment, tripping over objects, and slipping on hazardous surfaces like ice, snow, or water. Injuries include lacerations requiring stitches, concussions or head injury, sprained ankles, wrists or hands, and broken bones. These often require ER visits and can result in temporary disability and lost duty time for many days or even months. (Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen graphic illustration by Joyce Kopatch)

Cartoons typically portray slips or falls as comical accidents. But falls are no laughing matter. Falls often cause injuries that require emergency room visits for injuries such as lacerations requiring stitches, concussions or head injury, sprained ankles, wrists or hands, or broken bones. Learn how to prevent fall-related injuries.

Article Around MHS
Mar 30, 2023

Protecting the Warfighter's Health and Readiness, Now and Into the Future

An anopheles mosquito specimen sample sits under the microscope during a demonstration of the U.S. Army’s medical technology development and modernization efforts, Fort Detrick, Maryland, on Feb. 23. (Photo by Summer Abdoh, U.S. Army)

A cure for a debilitating and sometimes deadly disease, new treatments for working military dogs, a snakebite antidote, and a treatment for respiratory disease! See how years of research collaborations are providing protections for warfighters in remote places like never before.

Article Around MHS
Feb 28, 2023

Dental Team First to Treat Patients at New Redi Doti Dental Clinic

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Susan Gjekaj, Air Expeditionary Squadron pediatric dentist, operates on a student of the Johan Chelius School in Redi Doti, Suriname, on Feb. 13. Dental personnel from the Lesser Antilles Medical Assistance Team engaged with members in the Lokono and Kalin'a villages to provide extractions, fillings, cleanings and teach best practices for sustaining good oral hygiene. (U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Alexus Wilcox)

The dental professionals of the Lesser Antilles Medical Assistance Team were the first to see patients in a newly opened dental clinic in Redi Doti, Suriname. The Youth Dental Care Foundation’s Redi Doti clinic will serve patients in rural communities, making dental services and preventative care more easily accessible for the region in South America.

Article Around MHS
Dec 19, 2022

Protect Yourself With Respiratory Illnesses on the Rise

Military medical personnel administering vaccine

"Tis the season, and respiratory illnesses are on the rise. Learn critical health guidance about the viral triple threat of COVID-19, influenza, and the common cold, and the commonsense steps you can take to protect yourself and your family.

Article Around MHS
Dec 9, 2022

New Work Group Looks at Preventive Health Measures for Service Members

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Christopher Mohan

The U.S. Coast Guard is now prioritizing a review of health-related data to determine how to reduce illness and injuries within the workforce. This shift is prompted by a policy update within the Coast Guard Medical Manual COMDTINST 6000.7, as well as the new Population Health Optimization Work Group that will impact members, civilians, dependents, ...

Skip subpage navigation
Refine your search
Last Updated: July 11, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on X Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery