Teeth are to your mouth as a brick is to the foundation of your house. They’re an essential component that keeps everything else in place. When you lose a tooth, a dental implant can be a successful replacement option.
However, for a dental implant to succeed, it has to have enough support from the underlying bone–support you may not have if you’ve already experienced bone loss. Here, we’re walking you through everything you need to know about dental implants and bone loss and bone treatment options available to you.
What is a Dental Implant?
Before we discuss your options regarding bone loss and dental implants, you should first understand what dental implants are.
A dental implant is a surgically-implanted replacement tooth root, designed to provide a foundation for fixed or removable replacement teeth which are made to match your real teeth. These replacement teeth are usually synthetic crowns.
They give patients the chance to live their lives without dentures, which helps to retain the original structure of the mouth and prevent loss of bone mass. It does this by providing the same stimulation your bones would get when you chew since the implant functions more or less like a real tooth.
However, things get complicated if you’re already dealing with bone loss.
What Causes Bone Loss?
Several things can cause bone loss in the mouth and jaw, so it’s important to speak with your dentist about what’s going on with your bone loss.
For most patients, the most common cause of bone loss is losing a tooth as an adult. That might not seem like a big deal, but it changes more than you realize.
When you lose teeth as a child, the structure of your mouth doesn’t change because you have adult teeth growing in to replace them. When you lose teeth as an adult, however, there is no replacement bone.
That means that you’re missing a bone that acted like a brick in the foundation of your mouth. Once it’s gone, your remaining teeth will shift to accommodate for the empty space. Worse, the jaw bone below it is no longer receiving stimulation when you chew, which is what keeps the bone healthy.
When the jaw bone isn’t stimulated, your body thinks you no longer need the bone and the bone begins to atrophy, losing bone density and gradually impacting all of the surrounding teeth.
Bone loss can also arise from common ailments like cavities, gum disease, infection, injuries to your teeth or jaw, or a developmental defect.
Why You Need Enough Bone
All of this begs the question: why do you need enough bone in order to receive a dental implant?
It’s actually quite simple: the main qualifier for receiving a dental implant is having sufficient bone to support the implant.
Like other bones and muscles, your teeth and jaw are a “use it or lose it” situation. Dental implants are an improvement over bridges and crowns because they work almost exactly like a real tooth, helping to preserve the underlying bone.
The problem is that dental implants work almost exactly like a real tooth, which means that if you’ve lost too much bone in the potential implant site, your dentist won’t have enough bone to screw the implant in place.
The main reason why dental implants are so durable is that they literally bond with your real bone during the osseointegration period, which is why they function like real teeth. If you’re missing too much bone, there’s not enough left for the implant to bond with.
Bone Treatment Options
Fortunately, bone loss doesn’t completely prevent you from ever getting dental implants. In fact, you can still get dental implants even if you have major bone loss.
Before putting in implants, your dentist will have to reconstruct the bone you’ve lost so that the implant can be properly screwed into place.
There are several different options for doing this, depending on the extent of your bone loss, your personal preferences, and your unique situation.
We’ll explore two possible options here: bone grafting and distraction osteogenesis.
Bone grafting is a surgical procedure in which a surgeon takes healthy bone tissue from somewhere else in your body and place it in the area of your mouth that needs repair from bone loss.
There are several options for bone grafting, including:
- A graft from your own body
- An allograft (bone tissue from a donor)
- A xenograft (a graft using animal bone)
- A graft using synthetic bone
Generally, it’s best to take a graft from your own body if possible, since your body accepts it as your own tissue and allows you to heal faster.
However, a surgeon might choose to use an allograft if you don’t have enough healthy bone tissue in your own body to donate.
While synthetic bone has a lower risk of disease transmission, it’s not an ideal choice, since it’s not made up of cells like allografts or xenografts and cannot regenerate cells.
Another bone grafting option is distraction osteogenesis.
Distraction is the separating of two bones, and osteogenesis is the forming of new bones. During this process, a bone is cut during surgery and a distractor is used to slowly pull apart the two pieces of bone, forcing new bone to grow in between the gap.
Each day, your dentist will unscrew the device a little bit further, slowly widening the gap between the bone pieces and forcing new bone to fill in the gap. This doesn’t hurt–it should be less painful than wearing braces.
So, in plain English, distraction osteogenesis is a way to make a longer bone out of a shorter one.
Helping You Overcome Bone Loss
Your smile is an essential component of who you are. With the right bone treatment, bone loss doesn’t have to hold you back from having a complete smile.