How to replace a missing tooth

Tooth implantCredit: Drawing by Jane Gates

We take our teeth for granted until it's time to go to the dentist or something goes wrong. Mouth pain can be extremely unpleasant and it can interrupt our eating habits, good nutrition, how we look and even our overall health. Losing a tooth is something we tend to forget about once we lose our baby teeth. But when an adult tooth goes missing, it can have an impact on all our teeth.

The loss of a tooth needs care. Any gap will slowly effect other teeth as they drift into new positions with the lack of support. A healthy mouth can develop painful and expensive problems if the space is not properly filled. Headaches can often be attributed to oral and jaw problems.

The usual options are to fill the hole with a fixed partial denture (bridge) or a single tooth implant. A partial denture is a fake tooth that is supported on either side by two healthy teeth. It can be made permanent and, if well done, can last for many years. The down side is that the two supporting teeth need to be in good shape, but will need to be seriously altered to become posts for the central filler-tooth. These supporting teeth will need to be reshaped to carry the load of the bridge and will have extra pressure on them whenever you bite down.

The other choice is a dental implant. Implants have been around since the 1960's, but the technology has been much improved. The benefit to the tooth implant is that it is anchored directly to the bone in the jaw. This means there is nothing to disturb surrounding teeth. Additionally, the independently strong implanted tooth will help prevent resorption of bone, a common problem for the bone area that had been accustomed to supporting the roots of a normal tooth.

The concept is really not much different than screwing a fully functional, totally realistic new tooth into the jaw to fill the gap. One thing that will be different is that since a real tooth is buffered from the jaw bone with ligaments, this new tooth will be going directly into the bone without the extra cushion, so it will not feel completely like the original, living tooth. A partial denture or bridge, of course, will feel even more alien.

Tooth implants are likely to be more costly than a fixed partial denture, but that may vary with individual cases. A properly done implant should last a lifetime. In both cases, expect maintenance will be at least a little different than for a natural tooth. Good care is vital with oral hygiene no matter what, but with a missing tooth or a replacement tooth, it will make all the difference in a long-lasting, comfortable solution.

Shop around and inform yourself about your choices about dentures and implants. There are different techniques and each person has unique needs. Take care of your teeth and you will save yourself pain and even more costly procedures in the future. No one enjoys painful dental procedures, but be good to yourself: postponing proper care is likely to create more pain and higher expenses in the future. It could even endanger your overall health.

On that same line of thinking, shop by quality of care as well as price. Sometimes paying a little more for a better job may have a much bigger payback in the long run. Losing a job or a relationship can be devastating. But in time you can reach out and find another. Losing your health is something you can never replace.