Methamphetamine destroys teeth of prisoners

Feb. 5, 2007
Problem causes prison dental budget to soar.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada--Methamphetamine use can turn a healthy set of teeth into a rotting mess and its widespread use is causing a surge in the dental budget of Nevada's prison system.

The oral effects of methamphetamine, an addictive drug commonly made with household products or over-the-counter medicines, are so devastating and so unique that the condition is now known in medical circles as meth mouth.

"The mouths of the addicts we see in prison often aren't pretty," said Dr. Jeff Lissy, the state's top dentist in the correctional system. "Many of the inmates didn't take care of their teeth before they started meth, so use of the drug is just one more assault on their dental care."

Gov. Jim Gibbons has called the fight against methamphetamine addiction "the colossal struggle of our times."

The funding he has proposed goes largely to law enforcement and rehabilitation programs. None of the money he has proposed toward fighting the drug is slated to go toward treating meth mouth in inmates, though the problem appears to be getting worse.

Nevada's prison population has increased 19 percent to 12,500 inmates from 10,500 four years ago. But over the same time, the dental budget has 62 percent to $2.1 million, up from $1.3 million.

The cause of the meth mouth is simple: Use of the drug inhibits saliva production, which exposes teeth to bacteria that cause cavities.

In self-treating their "dry mouth," addicts drink sugared sodas - Mountain Dew, according to dentists, is the preferred drink - which spurs decay. The highly addictive nature of methamphetamine causes many users to halt most hygienic practices, including brushing their teeth.

Because meth makes users feel anxious or nervous, they regularly clench and grind their teeth, which often leads to cracks in the enamel. When the drug causes vessels that supply blood to oral tissues to shrink up, the tissues die, a sure path to the worst kind of gum disease.

Dentist Melinda Anderson remembers the first time she saw meth mouth vividly.

Six years ago, she was a 25-year-old dental student at Loma Linda University in California, and a 20-year-old man came into the university believing he might have chipped a tooth.

"He might just as well have been sucking on radioactive materials," she said. "What had been done to his mouth was that toxic. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."

Anderson recalled that most of the teeth on the right side of the patient's mouth were broken off at the gumline. His gums were pus-streaked. Teeth that remained were twisted and either black stubs or a strange grayish-brown. And they had a bizarre texture that was more like ripened fruit than hard enamel.

"I was so confused by what I was seeing that I immediately went to an instructor," she said. "I couldn't believe someone so young literally had to get what remaining teeth he had extracted. When I described what I found ... the instructor simply said, 'Oh, he has to be a methamphetamine user.' "

Anderson works on meth mouth patients at On Site Dental mobile clinic parked behind Paris Las Vegas on a pro bono basis.

Anderson said she wants "to help people with this addiction, but you don't feel like you're doing that much with extractions."

"There's not much we can do until we get them off this stuff, until we show people that it's foolish to even try it.

"It's going to take all of us in the community to work and solve this meth problem," she said. "Almost all of us know someone who has been involved with this. From the way I see people needing help with their teeth, I'm not sure we've seen the worst of this yet."