What are Dental Implants?
A dental implant is essentially an artificial tooth (or set of teeth). Unlike traditional dentures, which sit on the surface of the gums, a dental implant is drilled into the jawbone, so it acts like the root of a tooth. There is a metal connector piece, called an abutment, connected to the top of the implant, and then an artificial tooth, such as a crown, bridge, or denture, can be attached to the abutment.
Dental implants have some advantages over traditional dentures. Because the implant bonds with the bone in your jaw, it won’t slip. It also prevents the loss of bone tissue that’s common after teeth are lost. And it avoids the discomfort some feel with wearing dentures. However, the price for this is that they require surgery to place, and it takes several months for the artificial tooth root to fuse into the jawbone. So unlike dentures, which can be made fairly quickly and used right away, you’ll need to commit several months to the process of getting dental implants. Additionally, not everyone is a candidate; it depends on the shape and strength of your jawbone. For top teeth, an implant often would protrude into the sinuses and cause health problems, so most people are only candidates for implants on the bottom.
If someone is missing all of their lower teeth, it’s not necessary to place many implants, one per missing tooth (although this is possible if you desire it). Instead, two implants can be placed, and then a lower denture can be anchored to them. This will prevent the dentures from moving out of place, though they’ll still need to be removed periodically for cleaning. Often, an implant-anchored lower denture is paired with a traditional upper denture for someone who’s lost all of their natural teeth.
When you’re considering any dental procedure, it’s important to know the risks and weigh them against the benefits. Once you understand the procedure, then you can make your decision about whether or not to proceed. To help you in your decision-making process, we have some information about the risks and benefits of getting dental implants at Dental Implants: Risks and Benefits.
Please note that this page is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for qualified, individualized medical advice. You should discuss your potential dental procedure with your own dentist.
How it’s done
Dental implant surgery is done in stages. Depending on the condition of your jawbone, you may need a preparatory surgery to graft bone from another part of your body (usually the crest of the hip bone) into the jaw, to make it strong enough to support a tooth. If this is needed, it will take several months for the grafted bone to fuse with the bone that’s present and heal sufficiently for dental implants to be placed.
During the implant surgery, you’ll usually receive either general anesthesia or nitrous oxide plus local anesthetic, so you won’t remember the procedure. The surgeon cuts open the gum tissue where your tooth was lost and where the implant will be replacing it. Then, a hole is drilled down into the jawbone, and the implant, which is a titanium rod, is placed inside. You can choose to have the abutment placed during this procedure, in which case there will be a piece of metal protruding from the gum while you wait for sufficient bone growth to place the implant itself, or you can choose to wait on the abutment, in which case the gum tissue will be sutured over the top of the implant and you can continue using a bridge or denture once the gum heals.
You then wait several months for the process of integration of the titanium rod into the jawbone. Next, if you didn’t have the abutment placed during the initial surgery, you’ll need an abutment procedure. It’s usually done under local anesthesia; the gum tissue is cut open and the abutment attached to the implant. The gum will need to heal before the final step.
The last procedure is the creation and attachment of the artificial tooth. Once you’re healed from the final surgical step, impressions are made of your mouth and sent to a dental laboratory, where your artificial tooth will be made. You can choose a removable artificial tooth, which is more affordable, or a permanent artificial tooth. If you choose a permanent one, you’ll need another procedure under local anesthesia to place it.
You will nearly always receive general anesthesia or heavy sedation during the major oral surgery procedures. However, the later procedures of the process are usually done under local anesthesia only. If, despite knowing that there will be adequate pain control, you still feel anxiety about these procedures, sedation dentistry may be an option for you.
Preparing for the procedure
Choosing your dentist
In this case, you’ll need a dentist who’s specialized in oral surgery, to place the dental implant. This type of dentist may be called an “oral and maxillofacial surgeon” or a “periodontist.” You want to find out whether this particular dentist has experience performing the procedure you’re interested in. It’s at least as important to find a dentist with whom you feel comfortable, who listens to you, tries to understand your goals, and answers your questions. Referrals from friends and family, especially if they’ve had the particular procedure you’re considering, can be especially valuable. Your regular dentist can also refer you to an appropriate surgeon.
Planning for the Cost
Of course, you’ll want to know the cost of your procedure, whether insurance will cover it, and how you’ll finance it. For more, visit our Dental Implants Cost page.
The local anesthesia takes a few hours to fully wear off after the procedure. (Any sedation that you received may wear off faster or slower, depending on the type; see the Sedation Dentistry page.) After the anesthetic wears off, there will be soreness in the jaw and gums near where the implant was placed. After the implant surgery, the jaw will often ache for several weeks while the process of bone healing takes place. In most cases, the pain will eventually resolve.