Most people can relate to the uncomfortable feeling that occurs after scalding their mouth on hot soup or coffee. It's a relief when that burnt feeling subsides after several days. But imagine experiencing that burning sensation all day, every day. The condition is called burning mouth syndrome (BMS), and damage to the nervous system during menopause may be to blame, according to an article published in the May/June 2011 issue of General Dentistry, the peer-reviewed clinical journal of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).
BMS affects nearly 5 percent of Americans and causes a constant burning sensation, most commonly on the top of the tongue, lower lip, and roof of the mouth.
"The cause of BMS is currently unknown, but our findings support the theory that this is a neuropathic condition," says lead study author Gary D. Klasser, DMD. "For reasons unknown, it seems that the BMS patient's nerves are not sending and/or processing information correctly—there's a short circuit in the nervous system and the brain can't turn off the pain receptors."
Although BMS can affect both sexes, the study confirms by a 7:1 ratio that women in their menopausal and post-menopausal years are more likely to be affected by BMS.
"For a small percentage of women, it is these hormonal changes that may alter taste and the way in which a person interprets pain," says Dr. Klasser. "The alterations may be enough to start the cascade of events that lead to BMS."
With no physical signs, it is very difficult for many health practitioners to recognize, diagnose, and manage BMS. As with most BMS sufferers, the patients in this study experienced oral burning symptoms for several years and visited multiple health practitioners prior to receiving a definitive diagnosis of BMS.
"Besides reporting oral burning, patients describe experiencing a dry, gritty feeling in the mouth, as well as alterations in taste," says AGD Spokesperson Eugene Antenucci, DDS, FAGD. "But because many health practitioners are not familiar with BMS and cannot see any physical symptoms, patients often leave the doctor's office frustrated and untreated."
Although no cure currently exists, health practitioners who have an understanding of the syndrome can help patients manage their symptoms.
"BMS is not a matter of life or death, but it is a matter of quality of life," says Dr. Antenucci. "Patients who believe they suffer from any of these symptoms should speak with their general dentist and seek out a health practitioner who has experience with this condition."
Medications, both topical and systemic, are available to treat BMS. Patients should consult their doctor to determine the medication that is best for them.
Some helpful ways for patients to alleviate the symptoms of BMS without taking medication are to drink water regularly to keep the mouth lubricated; avoid spicy, hot, acidic foods that can amplify symptoms; chew sugarless gum to increase saliva flow; and avoid tobacco and alcohol products that can cause irritation to the oral tissue.