Dr. Susan Welch Advocates Holistic Health Begins with the Mouth
Feb 08, 2016 10:08PM
By By Thomas Masloski
Susan M. Welch, DDS, is one of a small number of farsighted healthcare professionals who have embraced functional medicine in their practice. Their focus includes, but goes beyond, traditional symptom-oriented treatment to the well-being of the whole person. In dentistry, this new healthcare paradigm considers the oral cavity a key gateway when considering the status of the entire body. The systemic health dentist considers the gums, tongue, teeth, jaw and throat as integrated indicators of whole body fitness.
“What I am developing within my practice is a program toward overall wellness, beginning from the perspective of the mouth, which is the beginning of the gastrointestinal tract and airway,” says Welch. “We help our patients learn how they can improve their health.”
Welch, who has lived in the Fort Walton Beach area for more than 15 years, came to the area via the military, where she served more than years in the Air Force Dental Corps, separating in 2003 to remain in the area with her husband Brian, who was serving in special operations. He retired in 2010.
“I’m proud of his service to our country,” Welch says. “And his partnership is invaluable to me. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goals of providing exceptional patient care, as well as being a mommy to my 9-year-old girl and 8-year-old twin boys; we're very busy!”
Welch received her Bachelor of Science degree, graduating cum laude, in 1992 from Ball State University, and immediately entered graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. In 1996, she completed her Doctorate of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree and entered into the USAF, where she was named the Junior Dental Officer of the Year, the Air Force's top honor for junior dental officers.
For the past 11 years, she has been focusing her continuing education on temporal mandibular joint (TMJ) disorders and chronic head and neck pain, as well as snoring and obstructive sleep apnea appliance therapy. In 2014, she earned diplomate status in both the American Board of Craniofacial Pain and the American Board of Craniofacial Pain and Dental Sleep Medicine. Her next academic goal is to earn diplomate status with the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine.
Treating TMJ disorders and dental sleep medicine (snoring and obstructive sleep apnea disease) is not a recognized specialty in dentistry. However, obtaining diplomate status recognizes both the clinical and academic expertise recommended to be co-treating these disorders with medical physicians, physical therapist, nutritionists and chiropractic providers. This is an area of Welch’s expertise, as is providing general dental oral health care for her entire patient base—or patient family, as she often refers to them.
A dentist cannot diagnose sleep apnea, but Welch understands the importance of screening for the signs and symptoms of sleep disordered breathing (SDB), as well as educating patients about sleep architecture and in some cases, referring them to a physician for an assessment and diagnostic sleep study.
Welch has recently been investigating forms of SDB that do not technically meet the definition of sleep apnea, such as upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS) and respiratory effort-related arousal (RERA) events, which cause severe fatigue. Patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can be treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. Long-term treatment with CPAP reduces both mortality and the acute blood pressure elevation that occurs with SDB. However, the machine and facial mask aren’t comfortable for everyone.
“Many people continue to have issues that they are not able to solve with the CPAP or they just don’t care for that type of apparatus, and become non-compliant,” says Welch. “Then, the physician can refer the patient to me to make an oral appliance that brings the lower jaw forward. However, even oral appliances may fail certain patients, because one solution does not fit all,” notes Welch.
“This is where I begin to look more closely at the root of the problem, evaluating the head, neck and musculature factors; considering oral factors, the mouth, gag reflex, shape of the tongue and especially, the jaw joint health,” says Welch. “Initially, we examine the patient by manually evaluating the muscle health of the jaw, feeling around the jaw to study the joint and looking at the jaw posture. We start a trial run with a temporary appliance before investing in a more permanent one one. After fabricating a final sleep orthotic, we continue to evaluate for comfort.”
Welch also consults with other members of the patient’s medical treatment team. “I actively seek and work with other medical and dental specialists to make sure patients are receiving the best care for their individual situation and to move them toward whole body health,” she explains.
Nutrition is another area that Welch is passionate about in her functional approach to whole body health, saying, “We’re trained to evaluate a patient’s diet on their risk for cavities. But beyond that, functional medicine recognizes nutrition is how we fuel and fix the entire body. Give the body what it needs and it heals itself. The inflammation of gum disease and jaw and throat problems, for example, can be addressed nutritionally. A supplement packet is often a part of my treatment program for a patient.”
Welch is an active member in the American Academy of Craniofacial Pain, American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, American Dental Association, Academy of General Dentistry, Christian Medical Dental Association and American Academy of Facial Esthetics. She also is a member of Florida's and Okaloosa-Walton Dental Society affiliates, because she believes it is critical to organized dentistry to support the profession at the state and national levels.
She believes in sharing her knowledge with other dentists, her patients and staff, as well as the local community. In the past, Welch has given lectures to the local Dental Study Club (the third-oldest study club in Florida), with emphasis on screening for sleep breathing disorders and appliance therapy for obstructive sleep apnea and snoring. For the past four years, Welch has presented a table clinic at the Emerald Coast Home Show, and recently participated in a community project called the Homeless Veterans Stand Down, screening 35 veterans and providing pro bona treatment for 10 of them. Welch says she is honored to be helping her patient family achieve overall wellness and health by providing the future of dental care today.