Chipped or cracked teeth are the most common dental injury. Most people will have chipped their tooth at some point in their life and not even realise it. More serious chips are often immediately noticeable both physically and visually.
Although, a very hard layer of mineralized tissue, called the enamel, covers your teeth it still has its limits. These dental fractures can range in severity and consequence from needing no treatment at all to more invasive procedures including root canals or tooth extractions.
Causes of chipped or cracked teeth
Chipped or cracked teeth can result from a variety of different and unexpected sources including short-term causes like trauma to the face but also long-term causes like teeth grinding.
Here is a list of some common causes of broken and chipped teeth:
Accidents and Trauma
There are many things that we do in our daily lives that can accidentally chip teeth. More traumatic accidents can include vehicle collisions or falls; but smaller accidents can occur such as drinking from a bottle and accidentally chipping your tooth on the lip.
Impactful sports are common causes of dental damage. If you know you will be undertaking activities that put you at risk for any head trauma, wearing proper safety gear such as mouth guards or helmets is important and effective at preventing teeth damage.
Eating hard foods
Accidentally biting down on hard foods / objects can cause a chip. This can occur from a variety of sources such as not properly washing vegetables, or simply chomping down on a hard popcorn kernel!
Teeth grinding is one of many potential long-term causes of dental fractures. Grinding can develop chips or cracks in the enamel over time depending on the severity.
Old fillings or restorations
Previous dental treatments including dental fillings or restorations have a higher chance of chipping or breaking compared to natural enamel.
Symptoms of a cracked or chipped tooth
Most shallow chips do not have any immediate symptoms. However, over time, shallow and deep chips can have symptoms such as:
- Tooth sensitivity with tooth exposure to extreme hot or cold
- Tooth sensitivity when chewing or grinding teeth
- Unexpected tooth pain
- Surface roughness and discomfort from irregular areas felt by the tongue
Enamel is the hardest tissue in your body, including bone! But unlike bone, enamel cannot heal itself. The only way to restore the tooth structure is through a professional.
Many people go without seeking professional treatment for chipped teeth. If you are not experiencing severe tooth sensitivity or discomfort from the chip, or the aesthetics of a chipped tooth do not bother you, then it is not completely necessary to seek professional restorations.
However, chipped teeth have a higher tendency to trap bacteria into the enamel depending on the severity of the chip/crack. This can lead to bacterial infection of the tooth, which can ultimately lead to tooth decay and cavities. Thus, for more extensive chips or cracks, it is recommended to seek professional restoration.
There is a variety of treatment options available for addressing a chipped/cracked tooth depending on the severity:
Filling or Bonding
If a small piece of tooth was chipped off, your dentist can easily repair the damage by performing a dental filling. Your dentist will likely use a resin-like material that matches the color of your tooth and mould it to fill in the chipped area. The resin is hardened with ultraviolet light and the resulting tooth is as good as new.
Dental veneers can be used if there is a significant amount of tooth remaining after the chip. A dental veneer is a thin layer of porcelain material that is fitted over the front of the tooth to provide the appearance of a whole and healthy tooth, much like a false nail covering a fingernail.
If a large piece of tooth was chipped off, then a dental crown may be used to prevent further breakage. Dental crowns are like veneers; it is a tooth-shaped cap that fits on top of your existing tooth. Permanent crowns made from porcelain and resin can appear nearly identical to the original tooth.
Root Canal Therapy
If the tooth chip is large enough to expose the innermost layer of the tooth (the pulp) containing nerves and blood vessels, then a root canal treatment may be necessary. If the pulp is exposed, then bacteria from the mouth can enter and cause an infection. If the infected tissue is not removed, then the pulp tissue can die and cause the whole tooth to decay. At that point, extraction of the tooth is necessary.
A root canal treatment involves removing the dead and infected pulp, cleaning the root canal, and then sealing it. Afterwards, one of the aforementioned treatments can be done to restore the structure of the tooth like the placement of a crown.
Extraction – Tooth Removal
In very severe cases where trauma has led to a complete compromise of the tooth structure, then tooth removal may be the only option. The extracted tooth can be replaced with a dental bridge, denture, or implant. This is a worst-case scenario though and is very rare for cases of chipped teeth.
How can I tell if I have cracked or chipped tooth?
In most cases, a chipped tooth won’t have any symptoms. However, if you feel any sharp roughness on a tooth, it is most likely a chip. Other symptoms may include tooth sensitivity to temperature or pressure, and general tooth pain depending on the severity of the chip.
Why does my tooth hurt after chipping or cracking it?
The dental pulp is the innermost layer of your tooth which contains nerves and blood vessels. Any damage to the surface of your teeth which lead to increased exposure and irritation to the pulp. This leads to a sensation of increased tooth sensitivity to things like temperature or chewing. .
Do I have to see a dentist if I cracked or chipped my tooth?
If the chip is very small, then it is not completely necessary to see a dentist; however, it is still recommended to seek a dentist for a professional evaluation of the damage no matter the size of the chip. Untreated chips have a higher tendency to catch and trap bacteria which will increase chances of developing cavities.
Are treatments for a chipped tooth permanent?
In most cases, restorations are semi-permanent. This means that if well maintained, the restorations for a chipped tooth can last many years; however, if mal-treated, restorations can become damaged or break off. Remember that a restored tooth is never as strong as a natural tooth.
Will I lose my tooth if it is cracked?
In most cases no. Tooth extraction is always the last resort and is only used if nothing else can be done. Full extraction is only used in very severe cases where the tooth structure is completely unsalvageable by other means.
What can I do to prevent my teeth from chipping/cracking?
For athletes or even the recreational player, wearing proper safety gear especially in higher impact sports can significantly prevent dental damage. This includes wearing mouthguards, helmet, faceguards, etc.
Another way to prevent chipped teeth is to avoid eating very hard foods or use your teeth to do any tasks outside of chewing such as opening bottles or holding onto objects.