Despite what you might hope, dental problems don’t usually go away on their own. In fact, most of them get worse—and more costly to treat—if they aren’t dealt with in a timely manner. Here are some common dental concerns, and what you can do to avoid paying the price of just “letting it go.”
Cavities. “Look Ma, no cavities” is something hardly anyone can say. In fact, the latest numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics show that more than 90% of us are affected by tooth decay. Fortunately, treating minor cavities (the tiny holes caused by decay) is normally easy and inexpensive. Your dentist will usually administer a numbing injection, remove any decayed tooth structure in the area of the cavity, and then fill the hole either with a metal alloy or a tooth-colored composite material. An untreated cavity can allow decay to progress deeper into the tooth and cause root canal problems. However, you might not even know you have a cavity unless you see your dentist regularly. So be sure to go when it’s time!
Chipped Teeth. The type of treatment recommended for a chipped tooth depends on how much tooth structure is missing. Teeth with minor or moderate chips can often be bonded—a procedure in which a tooth-colored resin is applied in layers to form a solid restoration. Bonding is painless, takes just one office visit, and is relatively inexpensive. For large chips, you may need a veneer, which covers the entire front surface of the tooth; or a crown, which caps the whole tooth from the gum line up. Sometimes a piece of a tooth breaks off because it has been weakened by decay. If that’s the case, this underlying problem needs to be treated before the tooth is restored.
Missing Teeth. Going without teeth—even a single tooth—can have consequences you might not even realize. Whenever a permanent tooth is lost, the bone that used to surround it begins to deteriorate. Neighboring teeth may also gradually drift into the space left empty by the missing tooth, which can end up causing bite problems. There are several options for replacing missing teeth. The least expensive in the short term is a removable denture. But even though today’s dentures look more realistic than they used to, they still don’t feel like natural teeth. Dental implants do look and feel like natural teeth; they cost more in the short term, but, over time, can be a better value and can last for life. An intermediate solution in terms of both cost and longevity is a fixed bridge. Your dentist can help you decide which is best in your situation.
Gum Recession. Gum tissue normally covers the roots of your teeth completely. But sometimes your gums can shrink (recede), partially exposing the root surfaces. This can be a cosmetic problem, because roots of teeth tend to be darker than the crowns, and also a health issue because exposed roots are vulnerable to decay. Overly vigorous tooth-brushing and gum disease are the two major causes of gum recession. A gum specialist called a periodontist can treat you for gum disease and/or do minor in-office surgery to re-cover those exposed areas if necessary.
Sensitive Teeth. Tooth sensitivity can have various causes. Absent decay, it usually means that part of the material inside your tooth has become exposed. This inner material, called dentin, is sensitive because it has nerves running through it. Normally it is covered by enamel and, on the roots, by a substance called cementum. Sometimes, however, these protective coverings can erode—especially if you have gum recession or consume a lot of sugary and/or acidic foods and beverages. Fluoride can help reducing sensitivity by strengthening enamel and forming a protective barrier on exposed dentin. Your dentist can apply it directly to your teeth in the form of fluoride varnish, or recommend other treatments.