Dental implants are a smart option for people who have teeth that are deteriorating and need to be replaced, or for those who have lost a tooth due to trauma or a genetic malfunction. Unlike dental bridges—filing the gap from a missing tooth or teeth with a false tooth (or teeth) tethered to adjoining natural teeth via a fixture that is similar to a retainer—dental implants are a more permanent solution. And unlike traditional crowns that can be placed on a natural anchor created by grinding down a tooth that has been damaged but not completely destroyed, dental implants can be used to completely replace teeth that are too damaged to be saved.
There are two main types of dental implants, although there are a lot of variations to accommodate individual needs. Endosteal implants use titanium rods that are screwed directly into the jawbone through the gums. When the anchor is fully set, crowns can be placed on the anchor posts to fill the gaps between teeth. The second type, subperiosteal implants, consist of a metal frame that is placed under the gum, on or above the jawbone. Once the frame is fixed, posts can be attached to the frame, and a crown is affixed to the post. This type of implant is generally used on patients who do not have enough healthy jawbone for an endosteal implant and who do not want to undergo a bone augmentation procedure to enhance the foundation.
“For those who don’t want metal in their bodies, zirconia implants are tooth colored and have become a popular alternative to titanium rods,” says Dr. Lisa Marie Samaha of Port Warwick Dental Arts in Newport News. “In either instance, if you are missing a tooth, an implant is the preferred option to a bridge in most cases, and they are quickly becoming standard care.”
The benefits of dental implants over other dental fixtures are numerous. For one thing, the implant is designed to look, feel and function just like your natural teeth, and they require no special care beyond what you should already be doing to take care of your natural teeth and gums. They are also designed to have a very long life. If you take good care of them, they should be with you for as long as you are around without any worries about cracking, slipping or clicking. One very important step in the care of a dental implant, as well as your natural teeth, is to visit your dental professional every six months to have them cleaned and checked.
One other major benefit of dental implants is that they not only prevent the deterioration of your jawbone—which can occur if you have gaps in your teeth—they can also stimulate bone growth and make your other natural teeth healthier. “A beautiful smile can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your perceived attractiveness, your attitude, your confidence and even the overall youthfulness of your face,” says Samaha.
While dental implants themselves are not necessarily new, there are some recent developments that are making the procedure more innovative. One major advancement that is helping reduce the healing time from months to weeks is 3D imaging and mapping. State-of-the-art digital images help dental surgeons accurately assess a patient’s bone density so they can quickly determine which implant options are best for each individual. The imaging also clearly shows where the patient’s nerves and blood vessels are before the surgery, so the oral surgeon can map out where to place the anchors for maximum patient comfort and to promote a speedier recovery with fewer complications.
For patients who desire the endosteal procedure but do not have adequate bone density or mass, bone augmentation procedures can be put in place prior to the dental implant surgery to create a more solid anchor. This may require the use of a natural bone graft taken from another part of the patient’s body, or a bone substitute material that can provide the necessary structure needed to anchor the implanted rod.
A third and newer dental implant option for denture wearers is called mini dental implants (MDIs), which utilize much smaller anchors than what are used in the endosteal procedure. These anchors are placed in the gums to more securely stabilize lower dentures to keep them from slipping or falling out.
The success rate for dental implants is extremely high. However, even though the tooth-colored crowns attached to the titanium or zirconia rods are generally stronger than a natural tooth, patients should be aware that they can still crack and may need to be replaced if damaged. To avoid this, treat them the same way you would treat your natural teeth, and avoid chewing on firm items such as ice or hard candy. Dental implant patients are also warned against smoking cigarettes, as this may contribute to reducing jaw bone density, which could result in implant failure or other complications.