Salivary gland stones are, in general, the result of saliva crystalizing in the mouth. Saliva plays an important part in keeping the mouth healthy, including keeping the mouth moist and aiding in the swallowing process. Thickened or a lack of saliva can result in crystallization within the salivary ducts, which then becomes a stone composed primarily of calcium, according to the National Institutes of Health. The stone blocks saliva from flowing through the gland, usually resulting in pain in the face and neck.
What Causes Salivary Gland Stones?
Experts haven’t yet been able to pinpoint the exact cause of salivary gland stones. However, there are some risk factors for developing stones, including:
- Poor diet
- Poor oral hygiene
- Use of certain medications, including antihistamines and blood pressure medication
Because many of the biggest risk factors for developing salivary gland stones involve controllable behaviors, those wishing to prevent the development of salivary gland stones should be sure to follow a balanced diet and drink plenty of water. Experts recommend drinking at least 64 ounces – think a half gallon – of water every day. Carrying a reusable water bottle along with you wherever you go can help you get in the habit of hydrating. It is also important to maintain good oral health habits by brushing and flossing regularly.
Symptoms of Salivary Gland Stones
During the beginning stages of development, most salivary gland stones don’t cause patients any symptoms. However, as the stones begin to develop, symptoms can begin to surface. Some of the symptoms of salivary gland stones can include:
- Pain and swelling in the face or neck
- Dry mouth
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty opening the mouth
If you notice any of these symptoms, consult your dentist. While a salivary gland stone is not a life-threatening condition, it can be or become painful and interrupt your daily routine.
Diagnosing Salivary Gland Stones
Dentists have a variety of tools at their disposal that help them in the diagnosis of salivary gland stones. In some cases, dentists can diagnose salivary gland stones with a simple physical examination of your mouth. Sometimes more tests may be needed to confirm the diagnosis, in which case your dentist may recommend x-rays, ultrasounds or a CT scan.
Treating Salivary Gland Stones
The treatment that is best for your salivary gland stone depends on a variety of factors. Minor stones may be removed simply by drinking more water or sucking on sugar-free hard candies such as lemon drops in order to increase your saliva production and dislodge the stone.
Additionally, sometimes the stone can be passed by massaging the gland itself. Apply gentle pressure to the cheek area in front of the ears or the area below the jaw and tongue and pushing slowly forward toward the nose or chin, respectively. Some dentists may even be able to push the stone out of the duct after completing a physical examination.
A dentist may also use an approach that is often used by doctors to dislodge large kidney stones. Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy is a non-invasive treatment that uses focused, high-intensity acoustic pulses to break the stone down into smaller, more passable fragments. In more severe cases, surgical intervention may be needed to remove the stone.
Outlook for Patients
While salivary gland stones are uncomfortable, they are generally not dangerous. However, patients who suffer from recurrent infections or stones may need to consider surgical removal of the afflicted salivary gland.