Of all the ways modern dentistry has to replace missing teeth, dental implants are by far the best. There is no tooth replacement option that will give you a longer lasting result. Implants also help preserve tooth-supporting bone that naturally deteriorates when a tooth is lost. Loss of bone is one of the major hidden consequences of losing teeth. A dental implant most often takes the form of a small, screw-shaped titanium post that replaces the root part of a missing tooth. The surgical procedure used to place an implant is actually quite minor and routine, requiring only local anesthesia in most cases. After a healing period, the implant is topped with a life-like crown that is custom-made to match your existing natural teeth. Implants have a documented success rate of over 95%, which is significantly higher than any other tooth replacement option.
If you have lost an entire arch of teeth (top and/or bottom), or are soon to have your remaining teeth removed because they are too unhealthy to save, you may be able to replace them with fixed dentures supported by dental implants. Doctors and patients alike prefer fixed over removable dentures because they:
- Look, feel, and function just like natural teeth
- Don't slip when you eat or talk
- Prevent bone loss in the jaw
- Last a lifetime
How Implants Work
Dental implants serve the same purpose as the roots of natural teeth: anchoring the replacement teeth to your jawbone. Just like natural tooth roots, they lie under the gum line and therefore are not visible in the mouth. Only the life-like prosthetic teeth attached to them (the fixed denture) can be seen by you or anyone else. Because dental implants are made of titanium, a metal that has the unique ability to fuse to living bone, they are extremely stable and reliable.
Tooth Replacement Options Using Dental Implants
Implants can replace missing teeth in a variety of ways. They can be used to:
Replace One Tooth — When you have one tooth missing, a single implant is inserted into the bone to replace the root part of that tooth; a crown then goes on top to simulate an actual tooth. This treatment choice has the highest success rate, making it the best long-term investment for replacing a single missing tooth. Even if the initial cost is slightly higher than other options, it is the most cost-effective solution over time. An implant will never decay or need root canal treatment, and feels just like the tooth that was there.
Replace Multiple Teeth — When you have more than one tooth missing, implants provide an ideal replacement mechanism. You don't even need one implant for every missing tooth. Instead, implant teeth can act as supports for fixed bridgework. For example, if you are missing three teeth in a row, we can place two implants, one on either side of the gap, and a crown in between that has no implant underneath. That way, you won't need to use any of your remaining natural teeth as bridge supports, which could weaken them and make them more susceptible to decay.
Replace All Teeth Permanently — Implants can support an entire arch of upper or lower replacement teeth that are fixed into the mouth and never removed. Sometimes the new teeth can be supported by as few as 4 implants. It's comparable to the structure of a table, which only needs 4 legs to hold it up. In cases where jawbone density and volume have deteriorated, 5 or 6 implants might be needed to support a row of 10 to 12 teeth. Dental implant replacement teeth protect your jawbone, won't slip, and should last a lifetime.
Support Removable Dentures — Implants can even make removable dentures more comfortable, effective, and healthier to wear. Traditional dentures rest on the gums and put pressure on the underlying bone. This accelerates bone loss so that the jaw shrinks and the dentures slip, particularly on the bottom. But today, dentists can attach a removable denture onto implants, transferring that pressure into the bone structure rather than the bone surface. This prevents the dentures from slipping while you eat and speak, and preserves the bone directly beneath them.
Implant Care and Maintenance
There are only two ways an implant can lose attachment to the bone and fail once it has successfully fused: poor oral hygiene or excessive biting forces. Poor oral hygiene and/or a lack of regular cleanings can lead to a destructive bacterial infection called peri-implantitis. Flossing and brushing your teeth on a daily basis, along with regular professional cleanings, can prevent this. Excessive biting forces can come from either a habit of clenching or grinding your teeth, or an insufficient number of implants to handle the forces generated by your bite. You should receive the correct number of implants so this does not happen. If you have a habit of grinding or clenching your teeth, a nightguard will be recommended to protect your implants. After all, implants are a long-term investment in your smile, your health, and your well-being, so it's best to protect your investment.
What To Expect
The surgery to place dental implants that support a fixed denture is a simple routine procedure carried out in an office setting under local anesthesia in most cases. (If you need to have failing teeth removed, that will be done first, often the same day your implants are placed). After numbing the area, the appropriate number of implants will be placed in your jaw at precisely planned angles and positions to maximize support and avoid anatomical structures such as nerves and sinuses. Depending on how many implants are needed, the surgery can take anywhere from one to three hours. Most people who have dental implants placed find that any post-operative discomfort can be managed with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Some don't even need to take that.
What happens immediately after surgery will depend on what's best to promote healing in your individual situation. Sometimes a set of temporary teeth can be attached immediately so that you can leave the office with new teeth. A few months later, your permanent replacement teeth with be installed. In other cases, the implants will be left to heal for several months before any teeth are attached. Sometimes that is the best way to insure that the implants remain undisturbed as they go through the process of fusing to your jawbone, which is known as osseointegration.
In either case, you will need to go easy on your newly placed implants during the crucial healing phase following surgery. You will be advised to eat a softer diet and avoid hard, chewy foods until the process of osseointegration is complete — about three months. While this may seem like a long time, keep in mind that people who wear removable dentures often avoid these foods permanently. The good news is that once your implants have fused to your jawbone and your new permanent teeth are attached, you will be able to eat anything you want. In fact, you are likely to forget you even have dental implants.