Dental implants are the tooth replacement option that is most like natural teeth. They are anchored in the jawbone like natural teeth, which means that they let you chew naturally, speak clearly, and never have to worry about having your teeth come out at an inopportune moment.
But dental implants still aren’t exactly like natural teeth. Here are some ways that dental implants are different from natural teeth and the ways that people are trying to make them even more similar.
A Little Bit of Flexibility
Probably the most important difference between dental implants and natural teeth is that natural teeth are much more flexible. This flexibility comes from several sources. The tooth itself, although very hard and rigid, is actually somewhat “squishy”–under pressure it will compress, like a hard candy with soft candy in the middle. This can lead to cracking, but the tooth is also designed to handle most normal bite forces.
The tooth also gets flexibility because it’s not anchored directly in the bone: it’s attached to the bone by the periodontal ligament, which has a small amount of stretch and flex to it.
The stretchiness and flexibility of the natural tooth helps protect it from bite forces without causing damage to the jawbone. But dental implants are rigid. From the crown to the abutment, to the implant to the bone are all rigid connections, so implants don’t have flexibility. This usually isn’t a problem, but under extreme bite forces it may cause damage to the bone, leading to implant failure.
To try to correct this, some people have tried dental implants that incorporate flexibility.
More Natural Roots
Another way that people are trying to mimic natural teeth is in the shape of the implant root. Natural teeth often have multiple roots. Think, for example, of the traditional image of a molar used by many dentists–it has at least two separate roots.
But dental implants have just one root–the straight post that goes down into the jawbone. The main disadvantage of this is that it leaves a lot of space around the implant that has to be filled in with bone graft material. This can affect healing and especially early stability of the implant.
To try to avoid this problem, some companies have designed dental implants that are shaped more like natural teeth that can, in theory, go directly into the space left by the natural tooth, and then remain very secure once there.
The Absolute Nerve
Another way that natural teeth are different from implants is that they nerves inside them. This helps you feel your bite, both when you’re chewing and when you close your jaws for any number of reasons.
The nerve can help you tell if you’re biting down too hard, or if your bite is out of place. It also helps you detect hard particles in your food so you don’t bite down too hard, which can damage your teeth.
As we noted above, dental implants might be more vulnerable than natural teeth to this kind of force, although not much more vulnerable than a natural tooth treated with root canal therapy.
We don’t believe there are currently any plans to introduce sensory nerves to dental implants.
Are These Changes Necessary?
People have long known about the differences between dental implants and natural teeth and have been working to minimize them. Some of these efforts are over thirty years old. But none of them have really taken off in the marketplace.
That’s mostly because dental implants are very successful. They have a 98% success rate, and large studies of dental implants show that 93% of them are still in place almost 20 years later. These figures give dental implants a comparable survival rate to natural teeth. They may be different, but, when the chips are down, dental implants are about as good as natural teeth for most people.