What many people don’t realize, is that a tooth has nerves and blood vessels just like the rest of our body. A tooth is “vital” or alive. There are reasons why a tooth can become non vital, or dead. It is not always easy to tell, and sometimes can be quite painful.
A dead tooth is simply a tooth that no longer has access to nutrients and blood flow. Our teeth are composed of three layers: the enamel, the dentin and the nerve or “pulp”. A healthy tooth has living cells and tissue inside.This living tissue plays a role in the development of the teeth. The nerve is the part of the tooth that can sense temperature, when you drink or eat something really cold or hot. It can also sense how hard you are biting into something, and feel pain.
All the blood vessels and nerve fibers are located in the pulp and this means that when the pulp is dead, then the tooth is dies as well. What can happen if a tooth becomes non vital, and why does it die?
What Causes a Tooth To Die?
The two main causes are:
-Tooth Decay - Tooth decay or a bacterial infection, when left untreated, will begin to invade deeper into the tooth eventually penetrating through enamel and into the second layer, the dentin. When the decay or infection reaches deep inside the tooth, the cells of the pulp try to fight it off by triggering the inflammatory process. This includes action by the white blood cells. Pus develops when some of the white blood cells die during the battle against the infection. If the infection is not treated at this stage, all the white blood cells will die and the blood flow will stop completely.When this occurs, tooth sensitivity is usually the first sign of trouble and this sensitivity will eventually reach the pulp and results in a severe toothache.
-Dental Trauma – This can occur from traumatic injuries, falls, severe grinding and clenching, biting into very hard objects, and sometimes idiopathic internal resorption (a tooth self destructs from the inside out for no apparent reason) . When dental trauma occurs, the blood supply can be severed immediately, resulting in the pulp dying off. Sometimes it is a slow progressive breakdown as teeth wear and crack from bad oral habits. Prevention is the key whenever possible. This is why sports mouth guards are recommended for all contact sports activities. Nightguards are recommended for clenchers and grinders. Extremely hard foods should be avoided such as popcorn kernels, corn nuts, and the mouth should not be used in place of tools such as scissors or a bottle opener.
Signs and Symptoms
It can be very difficult to identify a dead tooth just by looking at it and that is another reason why it’s important to visit a dentist regularly. It is possible to have no symptoms when a tooth becomes non vital. However, a non-vital tooth may exhibit some a tell tale symptom like turning darker. This discoloration is usually the dead pulp becoming visible. Another sign of a non-vital tooth is an unexplained swelling, or a raised white pimple like area. These signs are normally a result of a periodontal abscess, caused by periodontal disease or injury, which can rupture and produce an infection in the gums and mouth. A dead tooth will eventually become loose due to the destruction of surrounding bone by the infection process. It can also produce a foul odor and even more severe pain.
Many patients will ask, “If the tooth is dead why not just leave it alone?”.Simply put, the dead tissue in the pulp chamber will become a breeding ground for bacteria. If left untreated, an abscess can occur along with pain and discomfort. There are usually two options for treatment of a non vital tooth:
-Extraction – A tooth extraction can be performed if the tooth is not savable, or it can be chosen due to finances becoming an issue. A tooth extraction is usually the least expensive option but it can also can leave other issues on the long term horizon (such as tooth shifting, cosmetic and functional issues). Once extracted, tooth replacement can be done using a dental implant, a fixed bridge, or a removable denture.
-Root Canal Therapy - This procedure is performed when a patient chooses to save the tooth. Root canal therapy allows the dentist to clean out the dead tissue and infection, ridding of the decayed part of the pulp. This will allow the dentist to rebuild on the sterile tooth to return full form and function. With today’s modern technology, root canal therapy can be a painless and comfortable experience and, if done early, can save a tooth by preventing further infection and subsequent tooth loss. The procedure usually begins with anesthesia to prevent any pain, then a dentist will make an opening for the cleaning instrument to penetrate the affected inner parts of the tooth. The infection is cleaned out and the opening is then closed with a filling. The tooth can then be bleached to turn it whiter or a veneer or a crown can be placed over the tooth to make it look natural.
How To Prevent A Tooth Becoming Non-Vital
Maintaining a proper dental hygiene regimen including brushing and flossing regularly can prevent the buildup of food and bacteria that gets trapped between teeth and gums, which can cause infection and tooth decay leading to dead teeth. Regular visits to the dentist are also very important, since your dentist will be able to identify and diagnose early signs of tooth issues. There are other early signs that you can recognize on your own that include sensitivity to heat or cold, pain when chewing or biting down, slight discolorations, bad breath, gum swelling and facial swelling. Saving a dead tooth depends on early detection and early treatment. Do not ignore the signs and symptoms – get it checked out to decrease your chances of infection and tooth loss.