After tooth extraction, some patients may be tempted to leave the gap as it is, but tooth loss can have a profound effect on the health of the jawbone. If you have already lost teeth, it’s essential to understand the risks of leaving a gap in your mouth and become familiar with the things you can (and should) do to prevent bone loss in the jaw.
The Connection between Missing Teeth and Jaw Bone Loss
In your mouth, the tooth roots stimulate the jawbone to maintain its shape and keep it healthy and strong. When one or more teeth are lost, the jawbone no longer receives the necessary stimulation from these teeth and shrinks back, a process referred to as atrophy, bone loss, or bone resorption.
Bone loss in the jaw can happen for reasons other than tooth loss, including gum disease, which can attack the bone tissue as well as the periodontal tissue, and traditional dentures, which rest directly on the gums and rub on them, accelerating bone loss.
The Consequences of Bone Loss in the Jaw
Once it occurs (usually over a period of months), bone resorption can have far-reaching effects on your oral and overall health:
It becomes more difficult to replace missing teeth.
You may experience facial pain.
The surrounding bone can be affected, causing the neighboring teeth to become crooked or misaligned.
Your facial structure can change, taking on a "collapsed” look with a pointy chin.
If you wear dentures, they may no longer fit properly.
You may have difficulty chewing your food properly, leading to malnutrition.
The longer you leave it, the worse the bone loss can become. That’s why it’s critical to address missing teeth and changes to the jaw straight away.
Treatment Options for Missing Teeth
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to prevent dental bone loss or reverse it if it's already begun. Remember that bone loss in the jaw can happen over several months or even years, and the sooner you act to prevent or reverse it, the less bone tissue you will lose.
In a bone graft, a periodontal surgeon takes some bone tissue from another part of your body and inserts it into the jaw. This stimulates bone regeneration and helps to prevent further tooth loss. If you can't or prefer not to use bone tissue from your own body, synthetic tissue or animal tissue can be used to stimulate bone growth instead.
Dental implants replace missing teeth via a post, which is inserted into the jaw; an abutment, which protrudes from the gum line; and a tooth-shaped porcelain crown, which is made to match the surrounding and opposite teeth. Dental implants stimulate the jawbone like natural teeth and prevent bone loss in the jaw.
How Implant Dentistry Works
To place a dental implant, the dentist first completes a bone graft (if necessary) in the place of the missing tooth and waits until the jawbone has regenerated. This usually takes up to six months. Then, the dentist places the implant in four stages:
The post is inserted into the jawbone.
The abutment is screwed on top of the post.
An impression is taken of the upper and lower teeth.
The porcelain crown is fitted on top of the abutment.
Once the dental implant placement is complete, the post replaces the natural tooth root in the jaw, stimulating the jawbone and preventing bone loss.
A note about the benefits of implants: Dental implants offer numerous benefits, which is why we place so many in our Beverly Hills office: Dental implants are safe, they are as strong as natural teeth, and they allow patients to speak and chew normally. If you have a gap in your smile and are a suitable candidate, we highly recommend getting dental implants.
If bone loss in the jaw has led to misaligned teeth, you may be a good candidate for Invisalign. Instead of traditional braces, Invisalign treatments consist of a graduated series of clear retainers which slowly shift your teeth into place. This technique can be used in conjunction with bone grafts and is usually done before dental implants are placed. Dental implants don't shift once they are placed in the jaw.
For patients who decide against implants or who want to get implants placed at a later date, some dentists use a technique called alveolar ridge preservation or ARP. In this technique, the empty socket is packed with natural, synthetic, or animal bone tissue and the gum is closed.
While this technique is used relatively frequently to protect against bone loss, the success of alveolar ridge preservation in preventing bone loss is unclear. Several well-designed studies are needed before evidence-based dentists can recommend this technique.
Diagnostic Testing to Assess Bone Loss
If you've just lost a tooth or had an extraction in the past few weeks, it's unlikely that you would have lost enough bone to cause any major problems. However, just to be sure, you can get a dental x-ray to see whether there are any underlying problems with your teeth and help your dentist develop a treatment plan.
If you've had a missing tooth for some time, your dentist will order a dental x-ray or use cone beam technology to assess the structure and health of the jaw. He or she will then recommend treatment options to reverse any damage and prevent further bone loss.
The Best Way to Prevent Bone Loss in the Jaw
Knowing that missing teeth cause bone loss in the jaw, it's essential to act quickly. Don't put it off assuming that bone loss won't happen to you. As stated earlier, bone loss in the jaw is a slow and gradual process, and once the bone has atrophied, the effects can be permanent.
To prevent bone loss from missing teeth:
Get a dental implant placed in the same session as a tooth extraction so that the bone will receive the necessary stimulation.
If your tooth was knocked out, put it in milk and go straight to the dentist for re-implantation (if possible).
If you've had missing teeth for a while, schedule a consultation with your dentist as soon as you can.
With the right course of treatment (which may include bone grafting and/or implants), your jawbone could make a full or near-complete recovery.