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What is a dental implant?

For my first non "Welcome" post on Smile Again, I thought I'd start out with something rather basic, but foundational. What are Dental Implants? How do they work? Why would anyone want one?

The simplest way to explain the role of dental implants is to call them "artificial tooth roots." Natural teeth have roots that anchor them to the jaw bones. Imagine a tree. You see the trunk and the branches and the leaves, but underground is a large root system anchoring that tree in place.

Tree with Root System

Teeth are similar. The chewing portion of the tooth is above the gums and visible in the mouth, but way under the gums is a tooth root that attaches the tooth to the jaw bone.

Teeth with Roots

Until recently, dentists didn't really have any options for replacing tooth roots. For this reason, we've developed treatments that can be quite drastic to attach a fake tooth to a natural tooth root. These range from fillings and inlays to crowns and root canals. When a tooth was too damaged to save and the root needed to be removed, we even made bridges to replace a missing tooth by anchoring a replacement to the adjacent teeth!

Dental Bridge

Note: a dental bridge replaces a missing tooth by shaving down the neighboring tooth and putting caps on them, and then suspending a fake tooth in between, as see in the above picture.

While bridges were and continue to be great restorations, they have some limitations. For starters, you need to have a tooth on both sides of the space to make a bridge. Next, you must do irreversible damage to the neighboring teeth (shave them down). Finally, the biggest problem with a bridge, is that if you ever have a problem with it, you could end up losing all 3 teeth instead of just one! Enter dental implants. A dental implant is a titanium post placed into the jaw bone where the root of the tooth used to be. Your body really likes titanium (it is very "bio-compatible" - meaning your immune system doesn't reject it). Your jaw then grows bone that attaches to the titanium, forming a very strong connection. This titanium post then serves as an anchor on which a restoration like a crown can be made, replacing the chewing surface of the tooth!

Remember, the implant itself is just the anchor. The restoration (the tooth part) can be a number of different things. If you are missing one tooth, it can be a crown. If you are missing multiple teeth in a row, it an be a bridge (you don't need one implant for every tooth you are replacing). If you are missing a whole arch of teeth, you can replace the whole arch with a fixed or removable denture anchored by multiple dental implants.

Check back in for my next post about the other confusing part of implant terminology - "What the heck is an abutment?!

Do you have any questions? Any other topics you'd like me to address on this blog? Shoot me an email at and I'll either respond with an email or with another blog post.

Smile Again.

Jonathan Geleris, DDS, FICOI

Disclaimer and disclosures: I'm a dentist who performs dental implant treatments, and general dentistry in Walnut Creek, California. I don't work for any dental companies (other than my practice). Nobody pays me to write this. As much as possible, I hope to present factual information supported by solid science, however, humans are complex, and the science in this field is constantly evolving. Some of what I present may be based on my opinion.

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