You're crunching ice or a piece of hard candy when you notice something hard in your mouth that doesn't melt or dissolve. You get a sick feeling as you realize what it is -- a piece of broken tooth.
Although the enamel that covers your teeth is the hardest, most mineralized tissue in the body, its strength has limits. Falling, receiving a blow to the face, or biting down on something hard -- particularly if a tooth already has some decay -- can cause a tooth to chip or break. If you discover you have broken or chipped a tooth, don't panic. There are many things your dentist can do to fix it.
How to Care for a Chipped or Broken Tooth
If your tooth is broken, chipped, or fractured, see your dentist as soon as possible. Otherwise, your tooth could be damaged further or become infected, possibly causing you to end up losing the tooth.
In the meantime, try the following self-care measures:
If the tooth is painful, take acetaminophen or another over-the-counter pain reliever. Rinse your mouth with salt water.
If the break has caused a sharp or jagged edge, cover it with a piece of wax paraffin or sugarless chewing gum to keep it from cutting your tongue or the inside of your lip or cheek.
If you must eat, eat soft foods and avoid biting down on the broken tooth.
Treatment for a broken or chipped tooth will depend on how severely it is damaged. If only a small piece of enamel broke off, the repair can usually be done simply in one office visit. A badly damaged or broken tooth may require a more lengthy and costly procedure. Here are some ways your dentist may repair your broken or chipped tooth.
Dental Filling or Bonding
If you have chipped off just a small piece of tooth enamel, your dentist may repair the damage with a filling. If the repair is to a front tooth or can be seen when you smile, your dentist will likely use a procedure called bonding, which uses a tooth-colored composite resin.
Dental Cap or Crown
If a large piece of tooth breaks off or the tooth has a lot of decay, the dentist may grind or file away part of the remaining tooth and cover it with a crown, or tooth-shaped cap, made to protect the tooth and improve its appearance.
If the entire top of the tooth is broken off but the root is still intact, the dentist or an endodontist (a dentist who specializes in root canals) may perform a root canal and place a pin or a post in the canal, and then build up enough of a structure onto which a crown can be made. Later, the dentist can cement the crown over the pin or post-retained restoration.
If a front tooth is broken or chipped, a dental veneer can make it look whole and healthy again. A dental veneer is a thin shell of tooth-colored porcelain or resin composite material that covers the whole front of the tooth (much like a false nail covers a fingernail) with a thicker section to replace the broken part of the tooth.
Root Canal Therapy
If a tooth chip or break is large enough to expose the pulp -- the center of the tooth containing nerves and blood vessels -- bacteria from themouth can enter and infect the pulp. If your tooth hurts, changes color, or is sensitive to heat, the pulp is probably damaged or diseased. Pulp tissue can die and if it's not removed, the tooth can become infected and need to be extracted. Root canal therapy involves removing the dead pulp, cleaning the root canal, and then sealing it.