Dentistry In Space

Astronauts undergo physical and biological processes that are fundamentally different than those on earth. Space travel, it seems, is a harsh mistress, redistributing fluids, eroding bones and causing muscles to atrophy. Elevated blood calcium increases the likelihood of kidney stones, and decreased total fluid volume weakens the heart and leads to dizziness and fainting. This lack of calcium and chronic dehydration can be extremely harsh on teeth as well, and may present a problem for future exploration.

As humanity’s capacity for exploration and advancement continues to grow, the health of those who may one day travel beyond the limits of our moon is a growing area of study. Astronauts are already spending longer and longer terms at the International Space Station (as much as a year in some cases) and thus, the risk for dental emergencies is higher. Long-duration flights mean that periodontitis, caries, TMJ, and pulpitis have greater opportunity to arise, and must go untreated until the astronaut can return to earth. Additionally, dental emergencies such as cracked or chipped teeth which can be extremely painful cannot be treated in space.

This has lead to the need for researchers in a new field of “aeronautic dentistry” concerned with maintaining dental health on long-haul space flights, for example to Mars, which is the next major milestone for human space exploration. It is already well-understood that bacteria behave differently in microgravity, sometimes displaying alarming levels of growth and propensity to behave in ways not observed on earth. It is unclear how this altered behavior ties into the natural microbiome within the body and oral cavity.

In fact, NASA directors are proposing an intensive study program aimed at uncovering how dentistry might be practiced in space during long-haul flights or in the case of an emergency. Routine hygiene cleanings are important, and for trips that may span years, the inclusion of lightweight, easy-to-use dental supplies is essential. Any doctor accompanying a long mission such as one to Mars will need to be trained in dentistry as well, and perform it while weightless!

B Rai. Aeronautic Dentistry: A New Specialized branch and its Curriculum Guidelines. The Internet Journal of Dental Science. 2006 Volume 5 Number 1

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