What is forensic dentistry?

December 28, 2020

What is forensic dentistry?
Forensic dentistry, also known as forensic odontology, recognizes victims by the signs and anatomy of teeth, oral anatomy, tongue and oral soft tissues
Forensic odontology or forensic dentistry is a branch of forensics and deals with soft and hard oral tissues including teeth, palate, tongue, fillings and restorative dentistry performed on the victim

Forensics are a branch of investigative medicine, whose principles are often applied in criminal cases, incidents pertaining to mass fatalities, identification of human bodies by decoding their age, sex, socioeconomic status and examination of certain objects that can be clues for further research. Forensic Dentistry or Forensic Odontology (FO) is a sub-branch of forensics that utilizes information based on dental findings in the necessary investigative fields.


Forensic odontology is centred around structures present in the oral cavity. Teeth, the primary components in forensic odontology give significant hints about a particular case. This can involve determining the victim's and the criminal's age, sex, psychology, etc.


Bite marks present on the bodies of victim and criminal can give insights about the victim's age based on the number and type of teeth present. Each tooth is representative of a patient's sex. Some teeth are pointed in females, some are wider in males and in some cases the arrangement of the teeth can give hints about the patient's gender. The depth of the bite marks can let the investigators know about the severity of an attack which might be a result of child abuse or domestic violence. They give clues to the mental state of the offender.


The palate is another structure which plays a key role in forensic dentistry. The palate consists of wavy folds of soft tissue called rugae. The arrangement of these rugae are different in each individual just like fingerprints. The rugae thus play an important role as an identification mark. The main role of rugae as an identification mark comes in burn victims. These victims often have their fingerprints distorted due to the burns. Palate on the other hand is a well-protected structure and does not deter in the most severe burn cases.


The age estimation of victims can be done by studying the teeth's type. Milk teeth and permanent teeth differ in shape. The bite marks and dental records can thus help in decoding their age. Furthermore, the wear and tear on the tooth and the amount of mineralized tissues on its surface can also give hints about the person's age.


DNA analysis can be done by retrieving samples from teeth, saliva, etc. This can help in identifying the blood groups, diagnosing congenital diseases, identifying and establishing family relations in paternity and maternity cases, etc. The hard tissues of the mouth can withstand extremely high temperatures, which make them a desirable source for extracting DNA.


Lip prints also play a key role in criminal cases. These cases which can involve traces of lips found at the crime scene can be collected, compared and used for identification. Lips have wrinkled patterns which are characteristic to each individual. The grooves on these lips can be straight, curved, angular or sine-shaped. Thus, the lips too have their significance in forensic dentistry.


A unique feature of the tongue is that it is the only organ in the body that can be pulled from its original position in the body and exposed to the external environment for inspection. The grooves on patterns on the tongue are also unique for each individual. However, the usage of tongue prints as an identification mark is yet to reach its full potential. The length of the tongue and its shape can be compared in the ante mortem and post-mortem studies.


Forensic odontology also involves maintaining the dental imaging photographs of people. Some countries have made it mandatory for people to register their radiographic scans and dental records. These serve as identification marks in cases of unfortunate fatal events. Dental records in cases of people who wear dentures (no natural teeth present) do not hold any direct significance in forensic dentistry. However, denture wearers can leave a mark on their dentures as a sign of their identification. These marks need to be either engraved in the denture or should embed the person's details through computer printed micro-denture labelling system.


Forensic dentistry is a special branch in forensics whose professionals deliver information that can be helpful in the court of law. Recent advances in this field will further strengthen the evidences obtained through forensic odontology. Therefore, it is important that countries understand the importance of FO and lay special emphasis on registering the dental records of the patient in a computerized manner.


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