Are Dental Implants Possible When A Tooth Has Been Missing For Years?

The optimal time to get a dental implant is as soon as possible after the original tooth was lost. If your tooth has been missing for quite a few years, you could be wondering if you're still able to replace the tooth with an implant, perhaps thinking that too much time has gone by for the procedure to be successful. 

An Artificial Replacement

The objective of dental implant dentistry is to replace your missing tooth with an artificial structure that mimics the look and function of a natural tooth as closely as modern medicine allows. Admittedly, the process of implantation can be simpler when it takes place immediately after the tooth has been lost. But this doesn't mean that an implant cannot be successfully installed when the tooth has been missing for some years, or even decades.

Load-Bearing Structures

It's a case of the sooner the better with dental implants due to the way in which the implant interacts with your jaw. Think of your teeth as load-bearing structures, with the load being the ongoing bite pressure that your teeth experience. The foundations of these structures are your jaw, or more precisely, the alveolar ridge which holds your dental sockets. When it no longer has to support the load-bearing capacity of a tooth, this bone loses density. Sometimes, this density must be restored before an implant can be placed.

Measuring Density

There needs to be sufficient bone mass to anchor the implant. The mass of your alveolar ridge will be measured, using an intra-oral radiograph or a cone-beam computed tomography (CBCT) scan, which is a type of x-ray. This will indicate how much bone mass has been lost, which then identifies how much bone must be replaced before the implant can be placed. How is lost bone mass replaced?

Replacing Lost Bone

Bone grafting is the way in which your dentist can restore any loss of mass to your alveolar ridge. A small amount of grafting material is applied to your empty dental socket, which then integrates into the existing bone to restore this site-specific loss of density. The grafting material generally comes from a donor, but can also be taken from a compatible animal (often a cow), or an artificial substitute can be used. The bone tissue can also come from you, having been harvested from within your mouth, or even your hip. Once the bone graft has integrated with your jaw (which can take several months), your dentist can proceed with the implant.

The Type of Implant

Sometimes it's not necessary to replace lost bone mass, but this is dependent on the type of implant used. A subperiosteal implant is designed to rest on top of the alveolar ridge, instead of needing to fuse with it. An incision is made in your gums, and the implant is installed. Your gum tissues then heal around the implant, which helps to secure it. When the implant is intended for the upper jaw, your dentist might be able to use a zygomatic implant. This is configured to be implanted into your cheekbone, instead of your jaw, meaning any loss of jaw bone mass won't affect the implant. 

Even when a tooth has been missing for years, a dental implant is still very much possible.