While we often associate tooth decay with cavities forming in a tooth’s visible or biting surfaces, the occurrence of this all too common disease isn’t limited to those areas. Cavities can develop in any part of a tooth exposed to bacteria.
Gum recession, the shrinking back of the gums from the teeth, can cause such exposure in areas normally covered by the gums. Because these areas are usually more vulnerable to infection when exposed, cavities can develop at or right below the gum line. Because of their location it can be difficult to fill them or perform other treatments.
One way to make it less difficult is to perform a crown lengthening procedure. While the term sounds like we’re increasing the size of the tooth, we’re actually surgically altering the gums to access more of the affected tooth surface for treatment. It’s typically performed in a dental office with local anesthesia by a general dentist or a periodontist, a specialist in the gums.
During the procedure, the dentist starts by making small incisions in the gums to create a tissue “flap” that can be lifted out of the way. This exposes the underlying bone, which they then reshape to support the gum tissue once it’s re-situated in its new position. The dentist then sutures the gums back in place. Once the gums heal, the decayed area is ready for treatment.
Crown lengthening is also useful for other situations besides treating cavities. If a tooth has broken off at the gum line, for example, there may not be enough remaining structure to support a crown. Crown lengthening can make more of the underlying tooth available for the crown to “grab” onto. It’s also useful in some cases of “gummy smiles,” in which too much of the gum tissue is visible in proportion to the tooth size.
Because crown lengthening often involves removing some of the bone and is thus irreversible, you should discuss this procedure with your dentist in depth beforehand. It could be, though, this minor procedure might make it easier to preserve your teeth and even make them look more attractive.
There’s more to teeth than meets the eye. Hidden beneath the visible crown are the tooth’s roots set within the jawbone, secured and protected by the gums from bacteria and infection. But if the gums shrink back (recede), the roots become exposed and susceptible to disease, especially at the points where multiple roots branch from each other, areas called furcations.
It all begins with periodontal (gum) disease caused by built-up bacterial plaque from insufficient brushing and flossing. The infection triggers inflammation that over time weakens gum tissues. They begin to detach from the teeth, which can eventually lead to gum recession and root exposure.
This also causes bone loss, especially at the furcations. We can detect any loss (known as a furcation invasion) and how far along it may be with x-ray imaging or by manually probing with an instrument called a periodontal probe.
There are three general classes measuring furcation invasions. In the earliest, Class I, we can feel the invasion as a slight groove; in Class II, it increases to two or more millimeters across. In Class III the bone loss extends from one side of the root all the way to the other (a “through and through”).
At this stage a patient is in danger of losing the tooth, so we’ll have to act promptly. This means first removing accumulated dental plaque and calculus (tartar) to stop the infection and allow the gums to heal. With severe damage, we may need to assist healing with bone and gum tissue grafting, in which we place donor grafts to serve as scaffolding for the appropriate tissue to grow upon.
You can help prevent this situation by practicing effective daily hygiene and visiting your dentist for thorough cleanings at least twice a year (or more if recommended). And at the first signs of a gum infection—swollen, reddened or bleeding gums—make an appointment as soon as possible to have it checked. The sooner we can detect and treat gum disease, the less likely a furcation invasion or worse will be in your future.
While they're resilient, your child's teeth aren't invincible. Daily hygiene and regular dental visits are important, but you should also be alert for problems and take action when they arise.
Here are 4 areas that could cause problems for your child's teeth, and what you should do — or not do — if you encounter them.
Teething. This is a normal experience as your child's first teeth erupt through the gums. The gums become tender and painful, causing constant gnawing, drooling, disturbed sleep and similar symptoms. You can help relieve discomfort by letting them bite on a chilled (not frozen) teething ring or a cold, wet washcloth. Pain relievers like ibuprofen in appropriate dosages can also help — but don't apply ice, alcohol or numbing agents containing Benzocaine directly to the gums.
Toothache. Tooth pain could be a sign of decay, so you should see us for an examination. In the meantime you can help relieve pain with a warm-water rinse, a cold compress to the outside of the face, or appropriately-dosed pain relievers. If the pain is intense or persists overnight, see us no later than the next day if possible.
Swollen or bleeding gums. If you notice your child's gums are red and swollen or easily bleed during brushing, they could have periodontal (gum) disease. This is an infection caused by bacterial plaque, a thin film of food particles that build up on the teeth. You can stop plaque buildup by helping them practice effective, daily brushing and flossing. If they're showing symptoms, though, see us for an exam. In the meantime, be sure they continue to gently brush their teeth, even if their gums are irritated.
Chipped, cracked or knocked out tooth. If your child's teeth are injured, you should see us immediately. If part of the tooth has broken off, try to retrieve the broken pieces and bring them with you. If it's a permanent tooth that was knocked out, pick it up by the crown (not the root), rinse it with clean water and attempt to place it back in the socket. If you can't, bring the tooth with you in a container with clean water or milk. The sooner you see us, the better the chances for saving the tooth — minutes count.
During his former career as a professional footballer (that's a soccer star to U.S. sports fans) David Beckham was known for his skill at “bending” a soccer ball. His ability to make the ball curve in mid-flight — to avoid a defender or score a goal — led scores of kids to try to “bend it like Beckham.” But just recently, while enjoying a vacation in Canada with his family, “Becks” tried snowboarding for the first time — and in the process, broke one of his front teeth.
Some fans worried that the missing tooth could be a “red card” for Beckham's current modeling career… but fortunately, he headed straight to the dental office as soon as he arrived back in England. Exactly what kind of treatment is needed for a broken tooth? It all depends where the break is and how badly the tooth is damaged.
For a minor crack or chip, cosmetic bonding may offer a quick and effective solution. In this procedure, a composite resin, in a color custom-made to match the tooth, is applied in liquid form and cured (hardened) with a special light. Several layers of bonding material can be applied to re-construct a larger area of missing tooth, and chips that have been saved can sometimes be reattached as well.
When more tooth structure is missing, dental veneers may be the preferred restorative option. Veneers are wafer-thin shells that are bonded to the front surface of the teeth. They can not only correct small chips or cracks, but can also improve the color, spacing, and shape of your teeth.
But if the damage exposes the soft inner pulp of the tooth, root canal treatment will be needed to save the tooth. In this procedure, the inflamed or infected pulp tissue is removed and the tooth sealed against re-infection; if a root canal is not done when needed, the tooth will have an increased risk for extraction in the future. Following a root canal, a tooth is often restored with a crown (cap), which can look good and function well for many years.
Sometimes, a tooth may be knocked completely out of its socket; or, a severely damaged tooth may need to be extracted (removed). In either situation, the best option for restoration is a dental implant. Here, a tiny screw-like device made of titanium metal is inserted into the jaw bone in a minor surgical procedure. Over time, it fuses with the living bone to form a solid anchorage. A lifelike crown is attached, which provides aesthetic appeal and full function for the replacement tooth.
So how's Beckham holding up? According to sources, “David is a trooper and didn't make a fuss. He took it all in his stride." Maybe next time he hits the slopes, he'll heed the advice of dental experts and wear a custom-made mouthguard…
If you have questions about restoring damaged teeth, please contact our office to schedule a consultation. You can read more in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Trauma and Nerve Damage to Teeth” and “Children's Dental Concerns and Injuries.”
It takes a lot of skill, experience, talent and artistry to create tooth restorations that look so natural that no one can tell them apart from the originals. To do so requires understanding of the normal anatomy of a tooth as well as of the interactions of light and color.
How the anatomy of a tooth determines color
The color that we perceive when looking at a tooth results from the combined appearance of the tooth’s center core (dentin layer) and its covering enamel. Going from the outside in, the enamel is made of tightly packed crystals of calcium, which cause it to be one of the hardest substances naturally produced by animals. The crystals are also responsible for a tooth’s brilliance and translucence. The dentin is more like bone, a porous living tissue composed of microscopic tubes, interspersed with more calcium crystals. In the very center of the tooth is a central chamber containing the pulp and nerves.
Each of these layers has its own physical and optical properties. Since the enamel is translucent and the dentin is more opaque, most of the tooth’s color comes from the dentin and is transmitted through the enamel layer. Factors that affect this transmission include the thickness and age of the enamel as well as external tooth whitening.
If the enamel is more translucent, more of the color of the dentin shows through. If it is more opaque, the enamel absorbs and reflects light so that less color is visible and the enamel looks brighter.
The language of color composition and reflected light
Color means the whole spectrum in the rainbow. The spectrum is made up of the three primary colors — red, blue, and green. When all are combined, they create white light.
Hue refers to the brightest forms of the colors. The color we perceive depends on the dominant wavelength of light that is reflected by an object.
Value refers to a color’s lightness or darkness. A brighter color has a higher value.
Chroma is the amount of identifiable hue in a color. An achromatic color (without hue) appears gray.
Saturation is a measure of a color’s intensity.
This terminology of color is used not only by dentists and dental technicians, but also by a wide range of artists. It implies expertise and understanding of how colors work, how they vary and change and affect one another.
Contact us today to schedule an appointment or to discuss your questions about bonding to repair chipped teeth. You can also learn more by reading the Dear Doctor article, “Artistic Repair of Front Teeth with Composite Resin.”
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