Like bones, teeth are incredibly resilient and built to withstand the pressure and wear and tear that come with everyday activities like biting and chewing food. But they are not immune to damage, and anything from biting into a piece of hard candy to the impact from a fall or a sports injury can cause a tooth to break.
While mild to moderate chips and cracks may not cause symptoms such as pain or require more than a cosmetic touch up, some dental breaks are more severe and require an emergency dental appointment to alleviate pain and prevent potentially serious damage to the tooth.
So You Cracked or Broke a Tooth – When to See a Dentist
There are a few different types of tooth fractures and breaks. Treatment options vary depending on the severity and cause of the break. Even if you do not experience pain or other symptoms after breaking a tooth, schedule an appointment with a dentist as quickly as possible, as the severity and dental fracture type can be difficult to self-diagnose.
You may only see a small chip or crack after a fall or traumatic impact, but the tooth may have sustained damage to the pulp and nerve tissue, which can cause an infection and permanent damage to the tooth if it is not treated right away. Teeth can also break and split from severe tooth decay, which generally builds slowly over time. In order to prevent tooth decay and gum disease (the leading cause of tooth loss), the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends going to the dentist for yearly dental exams and professional cleanings.
Types of Dental Breaks and Fractures
Minor chips and cracks that are contained to the surface of the tooth may only require light reinforcement or cosmetic enhancement. The following types of dental fractures are the most likely to require emergency treatment to prevent long-term damage:
Whole Tooth Crack – If the tooth is cracked from the surface all the way down to the nerve, if will most likely need a filling or dental crown to stabilize the tooth and prevent the crack from spreading. If the nerves or pulp tissue are damaged, an emergency root canal may be necessary to clear harmful bacteria and damaged tissue (don't worry, contrary to popular belief, root canal therapy is no more painful or traumatic than a regular dental filling).
Break Caused by Tooth Decay – If left untreated, a cavity can eventually weaken and destroy the tooth from the inside out, which can lead to tooth loss in extreme cases. When caught and treated in time, the tooth can be saved and restored with a dental crown.
Split Root Break – This type of break starts at the root and radiates out to the chewing surface of the tooth. This type of break usually results in inflammation and/or infection and typically requires extraction.
Severe Break – This type of break goes down to the nerve and is usually treated with a root canal if there is nerve damage, followed by a crown restoration.
What to Do in a Dental Emergency
As a rule, tooth pain is usually a sign of a problem that requires timely treatment. If you are experiencing pain, throbbing, sensitivity, or bleeding after a break or crack, schedule an emergency dental appointment. If a tooth falls out, becomes loose or bleeds, keep the area clean by rinsing with warm water and applying clean gauze to stop the bleeding until you can get to the dentist.