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Are Teeth Alive?

Yes, your teeth are alive! This may seem hard to believe since your teeth are so hard, but it’s true.
a picture of pulled teeth in a row, are teeth alive

Nerves inside your teeth, known as pulp, control blood flow and need nourishment. Your teeth are essentially another organ in your body. It’s important to keep your teeth clean and to go to the dentist often for preventive care, because the state of your teeth can affect other organs in your body as well as your quality of life.

Anatomy of a Tooth

Teeth are made up of different parts, each having a unique function — dentin and pulp, for example, are actually alive. Learning the anatomy of a tooth can help you understand oral health conditions and why it is important to use good dental habits to prevent tooth decay and gum disease.

The following are the basic parts of a tooth and their functions:

  • Enamel: This is the visible part of a tooth. It is a protective barrier made up of calcium phosphate and other hard substances. Enamel is translucent and can be treated with fluoride, which dentists administer to children in hopes of preventing cavities and keeping enamel strong.
  • Dentin: Just under the enamel of a tooth is dentin. It is made up of living tissue and cellular material. The majority of a tooth’s structure is made up of dentin. Dentin looks a lot like bone and contains thousands of microscopic tubules that are very susceptible to bacteria that can lead to cavities and tooth sensitivity. Dentin is alive and can heal itself if bacteria growth does not get out of control.
  • Cementum: This is another substance that protects the dentin of a tooth. It is a lot like enamel but surrounds the roots of teeth and is softer. Cementum provides stability, attaching the fibers that anchor teeth into the jawbone.
  • Roots: All teeth have roots that anchor into the jawbone. Roots are built to withstand the force and pressure of chewing and biting food. Periodontal disease can affect the roots of teeth and threaten their structure. When a root gets infected or damaged, the tooth almost always dies.
  • Pulp: Some teeth have one root; others have three or four. Inside each root is a hollow chamber called a pulp canal. This part of the tooth is very sensitive and provides each tooth with blood flow and nutrients that are important for keeping a tooth alive. When the pulp canal gets infected, a root canal is often needed, and even so the tooth can die.

Signs of a Dead Tooth

A tooth is dead when it no longer has access to blood flow. That means that when the pulp in a tooth cannot be repaired, the tooth is dead. Of course, it’s not possible to tell whether a tooth is dead simply by looking at it. A dentist must take X-rays and look at the signs that are present.

The first thing a dentist looks at to determine whether a tooth is dead is its color. A gray or black color is a good indicator, but a shade of yellow can also be a sign. The discoloration is the result of blood cells dying.

A dentist will also take into account the patient’s level of pain. Pain doesn’t necessarily mean that a tooth is dead yet, but it does mean that bacteria have reached the pulp, requiring immediate attention. An abscess on the gums, bad breath, and sensitive gums can also be signs of a dead tooth.

Eventually, a dead tooth will loosen and fall out on its own. However, this does not mean that you should wait for this to happen. The process is painful, and serious complications can arise — such as infection entering the bloodstream. Additionally, a tooth may fall out but leave a root in the gums. Instead, a dentist should fix the problem.

How a Tooth Dies

There are two things that cause a dead tooth — tooth trauma and tooth decay. Neither one is pleasant.

Tooth trauma can happen as the result of a sports injury, such by being hit in the mouth by a baseball. (Children who fall on their teeth can kill their roots, too.) When this happens, the blood supply at the tip of the tooth root is compromised. This leads to the pulp dying. People who participate in contact sports are advised to wear a mouthguard to prevent dental injuries.

Tooth decay is the most common reason for a dead tooth. If a bacterial infection in a tooth is not treated quickly enough and reaches the nerve or pulp of a tooth, the tooth can die. This happens when plaque builds up on teeth and is not brushed off frequently. As the pulp of a tooth becomes inflamed, the blood vessels get choked by pressure and cannot survive.

Since your teeth are alive, they have the ability to heal themselves, just like any other tissue in your body. Saliva contains enzymes that help teeth heal. It is inhibited by sugar and bacteria. If you brush your teeth and floss often, your teeth can heal themselves without extensive dental care. Unfortunately, most people consume too much sugar and do not attend well enough to their oral hygiene. When bacterial infections start to cause tooth decay, a dentist is needed.

Treatment for a Dead Tooth

A dead tooth can be treated by a dentist in two ways — root canal or extraction. Extraction is the best option when a tooth has been left untreated for too long. It is also the least expensive procedure. However, for cosmetic reasons, most people don’t opt for extraction. An implant or dentures can be used after a tooth extraction, but this is also costly.

A root canal is one of the more expensive tooth procedures, being time-consuming and requiring a crown, but it can prevent a tooth from dying in some cases. If a tooth is already dead, a root canal can remove the infection and preserve the dead tooth so that it does not have to be removed. During the procedure, a dentist scrapes out the infected pulp and then fills the tooth with a filling. A crown is almost always required to make the tooth strong enough to withstand biting and chewing again. That’s where the real expense comes in.

Take care of your teeth — they are alive! If you suffer pain, have a discolored tooth, or see any other sign that there is a problem with your teeth, see a dentist as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more expensive your trip to the dentist will be, and the more likely it is that a tooth will die. A white smile is a confidence booster, but it takes effort on your part to keep your smile looking good.

Featured image via Flickr by Chris Sorge

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.

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