Much like the cuff of a sleeve fits snugly against the wrist, the gum tissue in your mouth fits tightly around each tooth. Think of the gingival sulcus as the space between the edge of the sleeve and the wrist, with the sleeve representing your gums and the wrist representing a tooth. Knowing how to keep this space clean and the role it plays in your oral health can help you avoid gum issues down the line.
Defining the Sulcus
The sulcus is the natural space between the surface of the tooth and the surrounding gum tissue (also known as the gingiva). You can picture the sulcus as a tiny, V-shaped groove around the circumference of the base of the tooth, according to a study published in the Gulf Medical Journal. The cementoenamel junction, located at the bottom of the sulcus, helps keep the gums attached to the tooth surface. When the gum tissue is healthy, it is firm, pink to brown in color and fits tightly around the tooth.
Measuring the Sulcus
The depth of the sulcus can help a dental professional measure your gum health. As a study in the Journal of Health Sciences & Research explains, your dental professional may choose to conduct a periodontal screening assessment to determine your risk of developing gum disease. They will take a small ruler, called a periodontal probe, and place the probe just under the gum tissue. The probe enters the space known as the gingival sulcus and gently presses against the spot where the gum tissue attaches to the tooth surface.
In the sleeve example, it is easy to picture this concept by putting your finger under the cuff of your sleeve. Alternatively, imagine taking a measurement of the miniscule space between your cuticle and fingernail — which is a little more snug than a shirt sleeve!
An Opening for Gum Disease
It's critical to thoroughly brush the area where the gums meet the teeth and floss between the teeth to keep the entire gingival sulcus clean. As the Mayo Clinic reports, when plaque is allowed to build up on the gums at the base of a tooth, the gums may become inflamed and bleed. If the plaque buildup isn't addressed, the inflammation can lead to the gums detaching from the tooth, causing the space between the teeth and gums to deepen and allow even more plaque to accumulate.
This deepening of the sulcus, also referred to as the development of a periodontal pocket, is one of the best early indicators dental professionals have for gum disease, or periodontal disease. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research classifies periodontal disease as a site with gum attachment loss of at least 3 millimeters and a pocket depth of at least 4 millimeters.
Maintaining Gum Health
When the gingival sulcus is invaded by plaque that has packed into the space, further complications can arise, such as tooth loss. To stop the damage, your dental professional may recommend a more involved type of dental cleaning called scaling or root planing to access the area under the gumline, according to the Mayo Clinic. If the damage caused by the bacteria is more severe, a dental professional can improve the health of the gums with surgical methods, such as a gum graft.
Following treatment of the affected gum tissue, your dental professional will explain the best methods to keep your gums clean, including daily flossing and brushing twice a day. If you have trouble reaching the space between the teeth and gums, they may recommend an electric toothbrush, a pressurized water flossing device or using small interdental brushes to clean in between the teeth. Additionally, your dental professional may recommend that you visit them more often for deep cleanings. Always keep in mind that gum disease can be maintained — and better yet, prevented — with routine, professional dental care and proper oral hygiene at home.