If you are receiving radiation therapy for a cancer of the head or neck, you may be at risk of a complication called fibrosis. Fibrosis can have a major effect on your oral health. Here are six things that radiation patients need to know about fibrosis.

What is fibrosis?

Fibrosis is a condition that is characterized by the formation of excess connective tissue. The excess connective tissue destroys the normal function of the affected tissues and makes the affected tissues less elastic. Fibrosis can lead to oral health problems when it affects your cheeks or jaw.

How does radiation cause fibrosis?

Radiation therapy is a common cancer treatment because it is able to kill cancer cells without having too many adverse effects on the healthy cells in your body. However, the healthy cells are not completely unaffected. Over time, changes may occur within the healthy cells. Radiation can make your healthy cells produce too much fibrin, a type of protein that is responsible for scar tissue formation. This extra fibrin builds up within the tissues and makes them thicker and tougher, resulting in fibrosis.

What are the signs of fibrosis?

If you develop fibrosis, you will notice that your jaw feels stiff and that you're not able to open your mouth as wide as you used to be able to. In severe cases, you may not be able to open your mouth at all. This stiffness does not just affect your jaw; it can also affect other tissues around your mouth. For example, stiffness in your cheeks may interfere with activities such as talking or swallowing.

How does it affect your oral health?

If you have fibrosis, you may not be able to open your mouth wide enough to continue your oral hygiene routine. It may be difficult or even impossible for you to maneuver a toothbrush or floss around your mouth. This is a big problem because if you can't keep your teeth clean, you are at risk of problems like tooth decay or gum disease. More serious problems, like infections or even tooth loss, can also be the result of poor oral hygiene.

How is fibrosis treated?

Fibrosis is very difficult to treat. Your dentist may prescribe a jaw stretching device; you will use this device at home as your dentist directs. Your dentist may also refer you to a physical therapist that is experienced in treating this condition. This therapist will lead you through jaw stretching exercises that can help you increase the range of motion in your jaw joint.

These treatments may not be enough to restore the range of motion to your jaw, so you may need to learn to live with the condition. If your jaw does no open wide enough for you to brush or floss, your dentist can recommend alternative oral hygiene methods. Instead of a toothbrush, your dentist may tell you to clean your teeth with either mouthwash or a saltwater solution. Instead of traditional floss, your dentist may recommend something that is easier to maneuver, such as a water flosser.

Is fibrosis a common complication?

Fibrosis is a very common complication of radiation therapy. Between 35% and 55% of patients will develop trismus, also known as lockjaw, as a result of fibrosis. Fibrosis is most common among patients who are receiving high doses of radiation or among patients who are receiving second courses of treatment.

If your jaw or cheeks feels stiff after radiation therapy, you may have fibrosis, a common complication. Make an appointment with your dentist to discuss treatments and ways to keep your teeth clean despite your condition.

For more information on dentistry, contact a practice like Joe Rosenberg, DDS.