Having a chipped tooth isn’t an uncommon problem—in fact, according to the American Association of Endodontists (AAE), chipped teeth account for the majority of all dental injuries. Teeth can develop chips from a variety of causes: suffering a sudden stress or impact; losing structure at the site of an untreated cavity or an old, weakened filling; or biting down on a hard object, like candy, ice or fingernails. Regardless of how chipping occurs, your damaged tooth may be a cause for concern—but with appropriate care, it’s a problem that can usually be treated quite successfully.
What’s the best way to treat a chipped tooth? It all depends on the tooth’s location, and the type and extent of the injury it has suffered. Some of the procedures commonly used to restore chipped teeth include dental bonding, filings, and crowns. Root canal treatment may also be needed when the nerve in the tooth’s pulp is exposed. In this case, getting an immediate evaluation is important: Prompt care and appropriate treatment will give you the best chance of saving the tooth. Let’s look at some different degrees of chipping, and how they are treated.
Small to moderate chips
Very small chips at the edges of teeth may be fixed simply by polishing them with dental instruments to remove rough edges. These chips frequently occur near the biting surfaces of the front teeth. Small to moderate chips can often be repaired via dental bonding. In this process, your dentist will restore lost tooth structure by applying special high-tech materials to the tooth surface. Made up of a mixture of plastic resin and glass fillers, bonding material is strong, anchors firmly to the teeth, and looks extremely lifelike. Another advantage is that bonding can usually be performed in just one visit to the dental office, making it an economical treatment. Over time, however, the bonding material can chip or stain, and therefore may eventually need to be replaced. Porcelain veneers, which replace the whole front surface of the teeth with a hard, wafer-thin covering, are a more permanent (but more involved and costly) alternative. In most cases, small to moderate chips don’t constitute an emergency unless they are accompanied by pain.
If a substantial part of the tooth has chipped off, it should be recovered and saved if possible. In some cases, your dentist may be able to reattach it via bonding. If part of the tooth’s cusp (the ridged chewing surface) has broken off, but the roots are intact, it can often be restored with an onlay (a type of filling that replaces part of the tooth’s chewing surface) or a full crown. However, if damage extends into the tooth’s pulp—the nerves, blood vessels and connective tissue deep inside the tooth—it will generally cause discomfort and pain, and will need prompt attention. This type of injury usually requires root canal treatment to remove the damaged pulp material prior to restoration with a dental crown. A root canal involves making a small hole in the tooth to access the pulp, and then removing the diseased and dead tissue with tiny instruments. The space inside the tooth is then disinfected and filled with biocompatible material, and the hole is permanently closed. A dental crown (cap) restores the tooth to its full function and aesthetic appearance.
This can be a serious condition that may involve sharp pain and bleeding, and requires quick action. Save the broken part of the tooth, if possible, and go to a dentist’s office immediately. When the break occurs above the gum line, the tooth can often be saved. A root canal procedure may be needed if the nerve has been exposed, and the tooth may then be restored by bonding or via a dental crown. If it is broken below the gum line, treatment becomes more complicated, and extraction may be necessary. However, several tooth replacement methods are available—including dental implants and natural-tooth-supported bridges—that can deliver functional and lifelike prosthetic teeth.
Discovering that you have a broken tooth can cause surprise, embarrassment, and sometimes pain—but fortunately, modern dentistry offers a variety of ways to restore your smile.