A Guide to Broken Teeth

On a day to day basis, just imagine what your teeth go through. Three meals each day, with a few snacks in between. Sugary drinks or a couple of coffees that can leave a stain or two. Then throughout the day, your facial muscles and jaw are constantly in motion, putting different types of stress and strain on your teeth at different moments of the day. During times of pressure, you might be inclined to clamp your jaw tight closed. Your teeth might tap against each other while you chatter over lunch. Then there are those occasions where you eat something which really puts your teeth through their paces: a chewy steak, an piece of crusty bread, a packet of nuts or toffees.

Your teeth go through a lot every day with barely any respite. Every motion causes them to connect together in different ways. Even at night, many people suffer from bruxism, where they grind their teeth and wake up in the morning wondering why their jaw or teeth ache. It’s a common problem but also one that can lead your teeth to deteriorate at a much faster rate than they would do naturally.

In this article, we will look at what happens when your teeth become damaged or broken and what sort of emergency dental care you might require. We will look at the different ways that your teeth can break or fracture, and explain the different options that your dentist has for repairing them.

Causes of broken teeth

When you consider the kinds of stresses and strains that your teeth go through every day, it is no surprise that they can fracture occasionally. Broadly speaking, most fractured teeth occur suddenly and accidentally. As many of us know, the most common way is by biting down unexpectedly on something hard – many of us know due to painful experience! Alternatively, an impact to the face or mouth can cause a dental injury and damage to your teeth. This could be caused by falling or being hit, for example.

On other occasions, fractured teeth can break due to underlying dental health issues, such as cavities and decay. If decay is allowed to advance through the tooth, it can weaken it and therefore cause the tooth to fracture, splinter or crack. Depending on how far the decay has advanced, this can become a serious dental issue which can ultimately lead to your tooth being extracted.

In the following section, we will look at the different types of fractures that you teeth can sustain.

What types of tooth fracture are there?

A ‘tooth fracture’ is a phrase that can cover several different types of damage, some of which are more serious than others. Therefore, while some types of fracture require immediate emergency dental treatment, others need little treatment or even none at all!

So let’s begin with the fractures that should not cause you too much worry.

Surface cracks on your tooth

A cracked tooth sounds bad, doesn’t it? However, there are various degrees of cracks that can appear in your teeth and some of them are worse than others. Many of us have surface cracks in the enamel on one or two of our teeth, which are often called ‘craze lines’. If they occur on the back teeth, you may not even know that they are there as they do not usually cause any pain or sensitivity. Nor do they require any treatment, as they are not usually accompanied by decay. The most likely course of action is that, once your dentist has identified the presence of surface cracks in a tooth, they monitor your tooth through regular check-ups to ensure that the cracks do not deteriorate.

A chip on your tooth:

As with surface cracks, a chipped tooth normally indicates only that the outer enamel is damaged. Therefore the inner pulp of the tooth is still being protected and decay cannot reach it. Most chipped teeth, therefore, do not cause much pain or sensitivity and they usually require only cosmetic treatment. Often, a chip can be repaired with a little bonding material.

A broken cusp of the tooth:

Sometimes, if you bite down on something hard, part of the cusp of the tooth can break. The cusp is the top of the biting surface and it is not usually painful when it breaks. If the break means that you find it more difficult to chew food, or that debris gets trapped in the tooth, your dentist may recommend reshaping the tooth or perhaps even fitting a crown over the top.

There’s the straightforward stuff out of the way. Now let’s concentrate on the tooth damage that can cause more serious problems and probably require some emergency dental care.

Badly cracked teeth:

Surface cracks are one thing, but what happens when you have a much deeper crack in your tooth? If cracks are spotted early enough, then they can often be filled. This depends on how bad the crack is and whether any decay has set in. So it is important that you visit your dentist for regular check-ups, so that they can spot any early signs or cracks appearing in your teeth. This could save you requiring more complex dental work in the future.

A broken tooth:

When your tooth cracks, the roots remain in place and if you are in luck, the vulnerable inner pulp of the tooth will not be exposed to decay and infection. When your tooth breaks badly, however, the nerve and blood supply are usually exposed. This will cause immediate pain and require immediate treatment as the broken tooth will usually bleed. The pulp of the tooth will need to be removed by a dentist using root canal treatment. After that, the damaged tooth will need a cap or crown fitted to hold it together and protect it from breaking down even further.

A split tooth:

A split tooth will often mean that the roots as well as the crown of the tooth are damaged. In some cases, when the roots are split, they can become infected and cause severe toothache. Depending on how badly the tooth has split, it may be possible to repair it with a crown in the same way as a dentist approaches a broken tooth. However, if the root is split then the crown will not have a sound foundation to attach to. In these cases, the tooth will need to be extracted.

What can you do at home?

If you have damaged your tooth and you are in pain, take an over-the-counter painkiller. If the pain is not localised to your tooth, but your jaw and cheek are also aching, try holding a cold compress to the affected area of your face.

You should try and get emergency dental treatment as soon as you can. If a large part of your tooth has broken off, try and keep it as your dentist may be able to cement it back into position.

If you cannot get to the dentist immediately, you may be able to use some temporary dental cement. Kits are available from your local pharmacy.

The influence of decay

As we have explained, there are lots of reasons why teeth can become damaged, fractured, split and broken. Often, it is no more than an accident and there is not much you can do about it. In many cases, however, decay plays an underlying role in weakening the tooth before the damage occurs.

Dental decay is caused by the build-up of plaque on the teeth. Plaque contains bacteria which reacts with sugary foods and carbohydrates to form acid. This acid then erodes the outer enamel of our teeth and causes cavities to form. If the cavities become large enough, they can weaken the structure of the tooth and therefore make it easier for the tooth to fracture. In some cases, the cavity may already have reached the pulp of the tooth and allowed infection to enter. This is obviously increases the possibilities of the tooth fracturing, and also makes it much more difficult for your dentist to save the tooth, rather than extracting it.

If you visit your dentist regularly and maintain a high standard of oral hygiene, then you should be able to combat the build-up of plaque and stop cavities from forming. A good oral hygiene programme does not take much time out of your day – two to three minutes, morning and night. If cavities do begin to form, then regular visits to your dentist mean that they will be spotted and filled before decay can set in.

What can your dentist do?

If a tooth fractures badly, the most common option for your dentist is to crown the tooth. But what happens if decay has already set in? This makes life more difficult.

If the infection in your tooth has reached the pulp, then your dentist will need to perform a root canal treatment. This involves drilling into the tooth to gain access to the infection, then scraping out the infected pulp via the root canal. Once this has been done, the tooth no longer has any nerve endings or blood supply, so it is technically dead. However, it can be preserved, as your dentist can fill the space vacated by the infected pulp with neutral matter. Once this has been done, the broken tooth can be capped or crowned as if it was healthy.

Root canal treatment may not be possible if the roots of the tooth are damaged or split. If this is the case, then it may not be possible to save the tooth and the appropriate course of action would be to extract the tooth. This relieves the pain and stops the infection spreading to other teeth.

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