When a natural tooth can’t be preserved, it is important to have it replaced as soon as possible. Presently, there are two excellent tooth-replacement systems in wide use: traditional bridgework and high-tech dental implants. What’s the difference between the two methods?
Essentially, it comes down to how the replacement tooth is secured in the mouth. In the dental implant system, a natural looking prosthetic tooth is solidly anchored in place by a screw-like titanium implant. This is inserted directly into the bone of the jaw in a minor surgical procedure, and over a short period of time (usually 6 – 12 weeks) its titanium metal structure will actually become fused with the living bone.
With bridgework, however, the support for the prosthetic tooth (or teeth) comes from the healthy teeth adjacent to it. These teeth must be prepared (shaped) by carefully removing some of the outer tooth material (enamel and some dentin), which enables them to be fitted with coverings called crowns or caps. Crowns are often used on their own, to restore teeth that are missing too much of their structure to be treated effectively with standard fillings. But the bridgework system goes one step further.
Instead of making individual crowns for each tooth, a dental lab will fabricate a bridge — a single unit consisting of crowns for the prepared teeth, plus complete prosthetics to replace the missing tooth (or teeth). A three-unit bridge, for example, consists of one complete prosthetic tooth to replace the one that’s missing, plus two crowns for the adjacent “abutment” teeth. It’s possible to have larger bridges as well: For example, a six-unit bridge might consist of two complete prosthetic teeth in the center, with two crowns for abutment teeth on each end, all linked together in one piece.
While bridgework has been used effectively for decades, it is now being gradually supplanted by dental implants. Implants don’t require the removal of healthy tooth material from abutment teeth, and they don’t place extra stress on those teeth; plus, they generally last much longer than natural tooth bridges. However, the dental bridge remains a viable alternative for tooth replacement in many circumstances.