What Is a Dental Implant?

Dental implants have revolutionized the replacement of teeth. Before the development of dental implants, people with dentures were unable to chew many kinds of food; this has all changed with the widespread use of dental implants. When I was in dental school, dental implants were being developed in Sweden by Dr. Per-Ingvar Brånemark, an orthopedic surgeon and research professor. I wasn't the only student at the time asking, "What is a dental implant?," so I followed Dr. Brånemark's work and realized that his research would revolutionize dentistry. Once dental implants became available in the United States, I started placing them, beginning in 1983. Since that time, the market for dental implants has exploded. According to the Dental Tribune, the global market for dental implants is estimated to be worth $9.1 billion by 2018.

Why Dental Implants?

A dental implant is a titanium screw that fuses with the jawbone. The process of fusing an implant with bone, called osseointegration, involves connecting the implant with a component called an abutment that supports the crown. But what is a dental implant able to do that other teeth-replacement options, such as bridges or dentures, can't do?

What bridges and dentures fail to account for is the fact that real teeth help to preserve the jawbone while bridges and partial dentures can actually do harm to the rest of your teeth. Fixed bridges require the cutting of good tooth structure from the adjacent teeth, and partial dentures require other teeth to hold them in place. These teeth are severely weakened by the chewing forces on partial dentures. The American Academy of Implant Dentistry (AAID) states that the average lifetime of a bridge is 5–10 years, and the failure rate of the teeth that hold a bridge or a partial denture is about 30 percent. As for full dentures, these can slip and restrict the types of food that you can eat.

When an implant replaces a tooth, however, the implant provides stability to the jawbone without damaging teeth. According to the AAID, the long-term success rate for dental implants is 97 percent. Dental implants eliminate the problems associated with other replacement methods, and they allow people to eat anything with confidence. An implant can replace one missing tooth, but as few as four implants can replace all the upper or lower teeth. The number depends on the quality and size of your jawbone. The longer the implant, the fewer implants needed to support the replacement of many teeth. Your replacement teeth will be attached to these implants. Soon, you'll be able to chew just as you did with your natural teeth.


An implant is placed by first making a slit in the gum tissue over the site of the missing tooth. A preparation is then made in the bone using various sized drills, after which the implant is screwed into the bone before the gum tissue is stitched closed. This procedure can be performed under local anesthesia or sedation, and it should be a painless operation. The implant must sit for four months before teeth can be placed, but there are some situations in which the implant can be used like a tooth. Successful placement of dental implants requires a team approach from an oral surgeon, who surgically places the implant, and a restorative dentist, who makes the teeth.

According to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS), people of all ages can have implants, except growing children. Even if you have bone loss from gum disease, there are bone-grafting procedures that can be performed so that implants can be placed. People with existing medical conditions can also have implants if their conditions are controlled. Your family dentist or oral surgeon can evaluate your condition and advise what implant treatment should be used.

If you have dentures or are missing teeth, implants can improve your quality of life and give you confidence when eating or smiling. They are easy to maintain by brushing and flossing, just like your natural teeth. Contact your dentist to discuss your options.

Learn more about dental implants in the Colgate Oral Care resources.

About the author: Dr. Pamela Alberto is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine. She is a Fellow of the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, the American College of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and the International College of Dentistry. She has lectured nationally and internationally on oral surgery, implant surgery, alternative medicine, local anesthesia and enteral sedation. She also maintains a private practice in Sparta, New Jersey.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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Top Oral Care Tips for IMPLANTS

Most dental implants are successful, and there are a few steps you can take to help ensure success and make your implant last.

  • Practice good oral hygiene – brush twice a day and floss once daily. Using interdental brushes, brushes that slide between teeth, can help clean the hard to reach areas around your implant.

  • Quit smoking – smoking can weaken the bone structure and can contribute to implant failure.

  • Visit your dentist – cleanings and exams every six months can help ensure your implant is in good condition, and that it stays that way.

  • Avoid chewing on hard foods – don’t chew on hard items such as ice and hard candy because they can break the crown and your natural teeth.