Despite significant advancements in oral hygiene and preventative dental care techniques, a substantial portion of Australians will still end up losing one or more teeth during their lifetime. This could be due to tooth decay, gum disease or facial injury.
There are several downsides to living with a missing tooth. The most common is the aesthetic damage to your smile, which can affect confidence. A missing tooth can also cause the surrounding teeth to shift over time, leading to crooked teeth. Missing teeth can also increase the likelihood of tooth decay, gum disease and oral infections. They can even change the way you speak and make some foods more difficult to eat, meaning you may have to change your diet.
There are, however, a few solutions for replacing missing teeth. Dentures have traditionally been the most common method. Bridges, where an artificial tooth or teeth are mounted to the teeth on either side, are also common solutions. However, both dentures and bridges have their respective problems and aren’t ideal long-term solutions for tooth replacement.
Dental implants, on the other hand, are a surgical option for replacing missing teeth. Unlike dentures, the replacement teeth are permanently fixed in place, meaning there is no movement or parts to remove and clean. And since implants are fixed directly into the jawbone, there is little risk of damage to the surrounding teeth, like there is with bridges.
Let’s find out a little more about dental implants, how they work and what the benefits are.
What are Dental Implants?
Dental implants consist of two pieces: a metal screw that is surgically fixed into the jawbone and an artificial tooth or crown that is attached to the screw.
Once the metal screw (usually titanium) is set into the jaw, the bone is given time to grow around the implant, permanently setting the screw in place and creating a solid root for the tooth. This will usually take between three and six months.
Once your dentist is satisfied that the screw has fully integrated into the bone, they will create a foundation for the tooth, before taking a mould of your existing teeth. From this mould, the dentist will create an artificial tooth that is perfectly coloured and shaped to replace the missing tooth. The artificial tooth is then screwed or cemented into the foundation.
When done properly, a dental implant will create a permanent replacement tooth and root that are as strong as and indistinguishable from your real teeth.
Implants can also be used to keep dental bridges and dentures in place. This secure foundation stops the dentures from slipping and shifting as you eat or speak. Using implants this way can also be a solution if you have trouble with dentures causing sore spots or gagging.
Are dental implants suitable for everyone?
Unfortunately, dental implants are not suitable for everyone. Since implants are an invasive surgical procedure, you need to have a base level of existing oral health to ensure the safe introduction of the implant. This includes healthy gums, jawbone and surrounding teeth. If you suffer from serious gingivitis or periodontitis, implants may not be possible.
Getting dental implants is also a costly and time-consuming process. So unless you’re willing to cover the cost out of your own pocket, it’s important to find out if your implants are covered by insurance. Many insurance providers won’t cover dental implants as they consider them an “experimental” or “cosmetic” procedure. Before speaking to your dentist, it’s worth checking with your insurance provider to find out whether they will cover any of the cost of the procedure.
What is the procedure?
Getting dental implants is an involved process. You’ll need to attend multiple appointments over a number of months to complete the procedure.
At your initial appointments, your dentist will undertake a full oral health check and take scans and X-rays of your teeth. This is done to determine whether you are a suitable candidate for dental implants and, if so, how the implants should be placed.
Once the preparation and planning has been completed, you will visit the dentist to have the implant placed. This can take place in a dental clinic under local anaesthetic or in hospital under general anaesthetic. Once the implant has been surgically placed, it can take several months for the bone to start setting around the implant. There may also be various follow up appointments to ensure that everything is healing properly.
Once the implant is set, your dentist will craft the replacement tooth before fitting it to the implant. The entire process can take anywhere from three to 12 months.
What are the after-effects?
As with any dental surgery, there will be some after-effects from the procedure. After the implant post has been inserted into your jawbone, you may experience some bruising, swelling, bleeding and pain in your gums, jaw and mouth. While your mouth heals, you may also need to regularly rinse and disinfect the wound to prevent infection and facilitate the healing process.
Your dentist will generally prescribe pain medication to help you through the immediate post-surgery pain. After that, over-the-counter pain relief and heat packs can help to manage any lingering pain.
You might find you need to eat soft foods after the surgery to avoid aggravating the implant site. If you experience ongoing pain or other after-effects from the surgery, visit your dentist as soon as possible.
Implant Care and Maintenance
Once the implant is set and the artificial tooth or teeth have been added, they don’t require any special maintenance beyond good oral hygiene practices. Regular brushing and flossing is needed to keep the implant and the rest of your mouth in good condition.
It’s important to think about the implant like you would your real teeth: Anything that’s bad for your natural teeth will be bad for dental implants. That means that anything that can increase the risk of tooth decay, gum disease or physical damage to your teeth will also pose a risk to your implants.
If you want to get the most out of your implants, you need to prioritise your oral health. Along with brushing, flossing and regular dental check-ups, you need to keep an eye out for any signs of problems.
Any swelling or tenderness in the gums around the implant could be a sign of peri-implant mucositis. This is a condition similar to gingivitis. Like gingivitis, it can also progress to a more serious issue: peri-implantitis, which can cause bone loss around the teeth, affecting the stability of the implant.
If you experience any of these symptoms, or any other problems with your implant, see your dentist as soon as possible.
The Final Word
Dental implants are one of the best options when it comes to replacing missing teeth. They are permanent replacements that are barely distinguishable from your real teeth. And they don’t come with the ongoing maintenance hassles of other options like dentures and bridges. However, getting implants is a costly and time-consuming process that may not be covered by your health insurance. To find out if dental implants are right for you, talk to your dentist today.