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Q
Are Dental Implants Safe?

Do dental implants negatively affect overall health in the same way crowned teeth can harbor low levels of infections, which affect overall immunity? Is it better to leave a gap? 

A
Answer (Published 8/13/2010)

Dental implants are an alternative to dentures for the replacement of missing teeth. The implant itself is usually made of titanium and is embedded in the jawbone in a surgical procedure. It will serve as the "root" or anchor for your new, replacement tooth. Ultimately, after the implant has been integrated with the bone - this can take up to six months - a tooth made to match your natural teeth is attached. The advantage of an implant over dentures is that it gives you a solid new tooth that doesn’t shift or move around as you eat or talk, as improperly fitting dentures can. The whole process can take as long as nine months and is not risk-free. You can develop an infection at the implant site, and there’s the possibility of nerve damage that can lead to pain and numbness. Other risks include injury to other teeth, to blood vessels, or to sinuses if the implant impinges on them.

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I discussed your question with my (holistic) dentist, Steven Swidler, who agrees with me that the bigger problem with dental implants is not infection or immunity but the issue of having something foreign implanted in the body. He said that bacteria and viruses tend to target implants, setting up colonies around them, and that the immune system can’t fight as efficiently in that setting as it can elsewhere in the body.

If I were replacing a missing tooth, I probably would choose a bridge rather than an implant, a recommendation shared by Dr. Swidler. We also agree that it is not better to leave a gap where the lost tooth was. First of all, when a tooth is missing, the jaw closes differently than it does when you have a full set of teeth. The remaining teeth begin to drift toward the gap, posing problems for them, your jaw joint and for your bite. This can affect the way you chew and beyond that, may limit the foods you are able to eat comfortably. Gaps also can trap food, which can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Worse, when a tooth is missing, the supporting bone in the jaw begins to dissolve, a process called resorption.

There are cosmetic considerations, as well - when teeth are missing, you begin to look older, the shape of your face may change and you may not smile as broadly (because you don’t want to showcase the gap). This affects your confidence and self-esteem as well as your physical health. Whatever type of tooth replacement you choose, you’ll likely be in worse shape if you decide to do nothing.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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