Dental implants are the preferred choice for replacing missing or lost teeth. A simple dental implant consists of a metal screw that is inserted into the jaw bone, along with a visible crown portion of the tooth that attaches to the screw. Specialized implants can also support a denture or partial denture, providing a more stable alternative to conventional dentures.
Dental implants help prevent many of the problems that can occur when a missing tooth is left unaddressed. Once you have healed from dental implant surgery, your implanted tooth will look just like a natural tooth, and you can care for it just as you would a natural tooth with daily brushing and flossing.
Advantages of Dental Implants
A dental implant can be used to replace a tooth or teeth that your dentist has had to extract due to decay or infection. Usually, your dentist will wait until the extraction site has fully healed, which may take several months, before proceeding with the implant process. You may also need a dental implant if you lose a tooth in a car accident or other traumatic event, or if you happen to be born without certain adult teeth.
Since bone loss can occur in the jaw bone surrounding an empty tooth socket, it’s best to have a missing tooth replaced with an implant promptly. If you wait several years to have an implant put in place, your jaw bone may not be strong enough or substantial enough to support the implant, and your dentist may need to perform a procedure called a bone graft to build up your jaw bone prior to inserting the implant.
Dental implants have several advantages over other tooth replacement options like dentures and traditional bridges:
- Implants stimulate the jaw bone, which helps prevent bone loss that can make the face appear sunken in. Dentures and dental bridges sit above the jaw bone, so they do not have this effect.
- Implants can last for the rest of your life.
- Implants do not shift in the mouth like a denture may, and they do not require the use of glue or fixative.
- Implants do not put strain on the neighboring teeth like a traditional bridge may.
Who Can Get Dental Implants?
Most people who are generally in good health are good candidates for dental implants. In the past, dentists did not recommend dental implants for patients with diabetes, but recent studies have found that as long as a patient’s diabetes is well controlled, they are at no greater risk for complications from dental implants than a non-diabetic patient. Most diabetic patients are therefore good candidates for dental implants. If you have diabetes, talk to your dentist and doctor to make sure you are managing your diabetes properly before scheduling your implant surgery.
Certain autoimmune diseases may also impede the body’s healing process, making you a poor candidate for dental implants. In this case, your dentist may recommend a dental bridge, rather than an implant, to replace your missing tooth. If you have gum disease or tooth decay, these conditions will often need to be treated and addressed before your dentist can perform the implant procedure. Thankfully, most gum disease can be resolved with non-surgical methods such as a deep cleaning procedure or root planing. Tooth decay can be addressed with fillings, or in severe cases, dental crowns.
If you are a smoker, your dentist will ask you to quit smoking prior to your implant procedure. Smoking impedes the healing process, increasing the risk of poor healing and infection after implant surgery.
Types of Dental Implants
The type of implants your dentist recommends will depend primarily on how many teeth you are missing and their locations.
- Single implants replace one tooth. If you are missing multiple teeth, but they are not next to one another, your dentist will probably recommend a single implant to replace each tooth.
- Implant bridges are used when you are missing several teeth in a row. Two or more implants are inserted into the jaw, and a bridge that features several false teeth is attached to these implants.
- Implant dentures are an alternative to conventional dentures. Four or more screws are implanted into each jaw. A denture, which features a full arch of replacement teeth, is attached to these screws.
The process of getting dental implants begins with an evaluation. Your dentist will take x-rays to examine the strength and structure of your jaw bone and the position of the remaining teeth in your mouth. He or she will ask some questions about your overall health to ensure you are a good candidate for the procedure. Models may be made from your teeth and mouth in order to design a custom implant denture or implant bridge. During or after this consultation appointment, your dentists will describe your customized treatment process, how to prepare for implant surgery, and how long you can expect your recovery to take. These factors vary widely between patients depending on how many teeth you are having replaced and their locations in your mouth.
Aside from the consultation, the dental implant process typically takes place in three stages. During the first appointment, your dentist will make incisions in your gums, insert the titanium implant screws into your jaw bone, and then suture your gums closed around the implant. This may be done under local anesthesia with a sedative to keep you comfortable, though some patients opt for IV anesthesia. After this first appointment, your dentist will wait three to six months for your gums to heal, and for your jaw bone to fuse with the implant through a process called osseointegration.
Once the implant has stabilized within your jaw bone, your dentist will attach a component called an abutment to the implant. The abutment is a metal piece to which your false tooth, or crown, will attach. Your gums will be sutured around the abutment, leaving it exposed. Your dentist will inject a local anesthetic into your gums to numb your mouth during this procedure, so you should not feel any pain.
The third and final stage of the implant process involves attaching the crown, denture, or bridge to the abutment. Most dentists complete this process about two weeks after the abutment is placed so that the gums have time to heal between the two procedures. Once your crown, dentures, or bridge is attached to the implant, your smile should look and feel very natural.
Caring For Dental Implants
You will have to pay close attention to your dental implants during the healing process, especially after the first appointment when the implants are inserted into your jaw bone. Stick to soft foods, and if you eat anything chewy or crunchy, chew it on the opposite side of your mouth from the implant. Rinse your mouth with salt water or an antiseptic solution provided by the dentist in order to alleviate pain and prevent the surgical sites from becoming infected. Your dentist may prescribe pain relievers or recommend using over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen to keep your comfortable as you heal.
Once you have the crowns attached to your implants, you should be able to return to your normal dietary habits. Do avoid overly crunchy foods, like ice and hard candy, as these may chip your crowns. Of course, they can also chip your natural teeth.
Care for your dental implants just like you would a natural tooth. Brush around them thoroughly to keep them clean and to reduce your risk of gum disease. Floss around your implants once a day, and see your dentist for checkups every 6 months, or as often as recommended by your dentist. During these oral exams, your dentist will look over your implants to ensure the bone and gum tissue around them is healthy and strong. With proper care, most implants last a lifetime, though you may need to have the crowns replaced after 10 or 15 years.