Dental implants are tooth replacements that look and feel like natural teeth because they fuse with your jawbone. The implant itself replaces the tooth root, then it is topped with a dental restoration like a crown or bridge that can replace the visible part of the tooth or teeth.
After the implant process is complete, the implant works just like a natural tooth, and can have some of the same weaknesses.
Benefits of Dental Implants
Dental implants are the best tooth replacement option available today. They offer many benefits over other replacement options like dental bridges or traditional dentures. Dental implants:
- Let you bite and chew naturally
- Look like natural teeth
- Require no special care: brush, floss, and make regular dental visits
- Support themselves
- Stimulate jawbone and gums
- Can replace any number of teeth
- Can last a lifetime with proper care
Because dental implants are firmly anchored in your jawbone, you can bite and chew with them normally. You don’t have to give up any of your favorite foods when you get dental implants.
Dental implants also look like natural teeth. When an implant is done right, no one will be able to tell that one of your teeth isn’t natural.
Dental implants don’t need to be removed to be cleaned. You just treat them like another tooth: brush, floss, and make regular dental visits. Some implant configurations might be a little harder to floss than natural teeth, but that’s about all the difference.
Dental implants can support themselves–they’re anchored in the bone, after all. That means they don’t lean on or attach to your natural teeth, which also means that they don’t reduce the lifetime of your natural teeth.
When you lose a tooth, your body begins to remove the bones that used to support the tooth. As the bone goes, so does the gums. Dentures and bridges don’t stop this process, but implants do, by stimulating the bone.
Dental implants can be used to replace one, a few, or all your natural teeth. It depends on the restoration placed on top of the implant or implants.
Dental implants can be lifetime tooth replacements. In clinical studies, their normal lifespan has been shown to be well over 20 years, and some studies show that 30 years is not unreasonable to expect. The longest documented time for a person to have dental implants is over 50 years.
Osseointegration: How Implants Work
Dental implants work by a process known as osseointegration, discovered by Dr. Per-Ingvar Brånemark in the 1950s. In osseointegration, human bone cells actually attach to the dental implant. This keeps the dental implant firmly secured in place. As long as the bone stays healthy, the implant stays in place.
There are few materials that are capable of integrating with the bone. The most common material used in dental implant procedures, titanium, was the first one discovered to reliably integrate. Some ceramic materials can also integrate with the bone. Of these, the one that is strong enough to function as a dental implant is zirconia, which is a white ceramic that is about as strong as titanium.
It’s important to note that your natural teeth don’t actually osseointegrate to the jawbone. They are connected to the jaw by a tough band of tissue called the periodontal ligament. This ligament not only gives the tooth some wiggle room to respond to bite forces, it also stimulates the production of new bone.
The Implant Process
There are many stages to the dental implant process, which can take a few months to a few years to complete.
Initial Consultation–Are Implants Right for You?
During your initial consultation, we will talk to you about dental implants and make sure they are right for you. To be a dental implant candidate requires only three basic characteristics:
- Are you missing one or more teeth?
- Has your jawbone stopped growing?
- Are you healthy enough for surgery?
If you meet these three standards, you can technically get dental implants. However, there are many other factors to consider in deciding whether dental implants are right for you. For most people, implants are very successful, but your success rate and risk of complications could be affected by:
- Smoking status
- Periodontal status
- Health conditions
- Dedication to care of implants
We’ll do a complete review of your health history and talk about how these various factors will impact the overall success and likely lifespan of your dental implants. If you are still happy with implants as your tooth replacement solution, we’ll proceed to plan your implant surgery or surgeries.
How Many Surgeries?
Typically, placing a dental implant requires only one surgery. We will drill a hole in your jawbone at the proper location for the implant, then place the implant, usually shaped like a screw, into the hole. This surgery can easily be completed in under an hour for a single implant.
However, some people may require more surgeries for their implant procedure. If you have advanced gum disease, we might have to perform a separate gum disease treatment surgery that includes the extraction of at-risk teeth. We may have to wait for you to heal from this surgery before we proceed with the implant procedure.
If you have lost a lot of jawbone, either from gum disease or atrophy after tooth loss, we might want to perform a bone graft in a separate procedure. The graft will have to heal before the implant can be placed. (Minor bone grafts can be performed as part of the normal implant procedure.)
After your dental implant is placed, we will evaluate the stability of the implant. If it is stable, we might place an artificial tooth on it immediately. This healing tooth will help the gums to grow around the implant in a healthy, attractive way. The same is true if you have a bridge being supported by multiple implants. In fact, we’re more likely to place a restoration right away because the implants can steady each other.
However, if your implant isn’t stable right away, we might cover it up with gum tissue to protect the implant while it heals. If that’s the case, you will need a surgery to reveal the implant so we can place a healing cap or dental crown. This used to be the way all implant procedures were done, but modern practice favors immediate placement of crowns or bridges.
Thus, while most people only need one implant surgery, some people may require three or four to achieve best results. During your consultation, we’ll let you know what you can expect.
Do Dental Implants Hurt?
The dental implant procedure doesn’t hurt much. During the surgery, we will use anesthesia to ensure you experience little or no discomfort. Following surgery, you can expect some soreness, but most patients report it’s much less than they expected. In fact, it’s usually much less than a normal tooth extraction. After implant surgery, over-the-counter medications can usually control your discomfort.
Recovery and Healing
Recovery from dental implant surgery is usually fast. You might want to take a day or two off to recover, but it’s not necessary. Follow your postoperative instructions to aid healing and avoid complications. If no complications develop, you should feel back to normal within a week.
However, the true healing magic of osseointegration takes longer. Immediately after surgery, your body starts the process of removing old bone and building new bone that attaches to the implant. However, at first, the removal process dominates, which means the implant can lose some stability. It shouldn’t feel loose, but it can be vulnerable a few weeks after surgery. Then the new bone will attach to the implant, and after a few months, the implant should be as secure as any natural tooth.
If we put a dental crown or bridge on your implant at the time of your procedure, it’s what we call a “provisional.” It’s designed to look good and provide some function while encouraging the implant to heal. It’s set up so it reduces the bite force on your implant.
But once your implant is fully healed, it’s time to replace the provisional with a final restoration. The new crown will look very attractive and function completely like a natura