Dental implants are surgically fixed substitutes for roots of missing teeth. Embedded in the jawbone, they act as anchors for a replacement tooth, also known as a crown, or a full set of replacement teeth.
The purpose of dental implant surgery is to fix metallic anchors in the jaw bone so that they can receive the replacement teeth and hold them in place. Dental implants should be considered as an option for replacing failing or missing teeth and often provide more predictable results than bridgework, resin bonded bridges, or endodontic treatment.
By replacing a lost tooth with a dental implant, the overall health and function of the surrounding teeth is maintained. The implant can prevent tooth migration and loss of structure and will help avoid loss of bone from the jaw in that area. Further, implants reduce the impact of the lost tooth on surrounding teeth, as traditional bridge structures often require reduction (filing down) of the two flanking teeth to hold the bridge in place with a crown. Implanting avoids such alterations to the surrounding teeth when replacing a lost tooth.
When replacing dentures, implants can provide even more benefits. Implants do not slip nor do they have the potential of limiting the diet to easily chewed foods as can happen with poorly fitting dentures. If appropriate, implants are the method most able to surgically restore one or more missing teeth to their original conditions.
The actual procedure occurs as follows. Under local anesthesia, the first step for many implant procedures is the exposure of the bone where the implant is to be made. This is followed by placement of the implant into the exposed jawbone. Implants that are placed in the bone are called endosteal implants and are made of titanium or a titanium alloy because this metal does not adversely interact with biological tissue. After placement of the implant a cover screw is put in and the wound is closed with stitches and allowed to heal. In general, placements in the lower jaw need to heal about three months, while placements in the upper jaw need to heal about six months.
After healing, in a second surgical procedure, the implant is uncovered, the cover screw is removed, and a healing abutment or a temporary crown is placed in the implant. Temporary crowns are generally used for esthetic reasons, when the implant is in a place that is visible. Both healing abutments and temporary crowns allow the tissue around the implant to be trained to grow around the final prosthetic tooth.
After about two months the soft tissue will be healed to receive the final prosthetic tooth. Impressions are used to make custom abutments that take into account the neck morphology of the implant. The prosthetic tooth is sometimes attached to a gold cylinder that can be screwed into the abutment or it can be directly cemented onto the abutment. This multi-stage process, where the two surgical procedures are separated by a lengthy healing time, has proven to provide excellent stability in the final implant. Single step surgical implants are available, but some stability of the final implant is often lost by eliminating the healing step.
At the first appointment, the dentist or oral surgeon performs a thorough examination to determine whether implants are appropriate to replace the missing teeth. Often, x-rays are necessary to discover the state of the jawbone, particularly if the teeth have been lost for some time. This information is used to determine if implants are appropriate and, if so, what particular type of implant would be best for the clinical situation.
There are two solutions commonly used if the initial examination indicates that the bone in the area where the implant is to occur is too resorbed to support the implant. The first is bone grafting. This involves undergoing a procedure that moves bone from one place in the body to another to enlarge the bone structure at the implant site. Often, bone can be moved from one place in the mouth to another. Sometimes a graft from a donor or an animal or artificial bone can be used if bone from the patient is not available. Grafting usually is done four to eight months before the implant procedure, to allow the graft a chance to heal before it is disturbed with the implant process.
A second solution is the use of subperiosteal implants that ride above the bone but beneath the gum. These types of implants are not placed in the bone. A CT scan is commonly used to obtain a model of the bone structure and then the implant fixture is molded to precisely fit the bone model.
The greatest risk following the surgical procedures is that the implant will fail. For implants placed within the bone, most failures occur within the first year and then occur at a rate of less than 1% per year thereafter. Recent research has indicated that tobacco use by the patient and use of a single-stage implant procedure are two risk factors that increase failure rate.