HomeDental diagnoses › Tooth fractures

Tooth fractures

Cracked lower molar tooth with decay and fractures extending from silver filling.

Figure 1a: A tooth with obvious fractures that did not have symptoms. Some of the fractures in this tooth had been present long enough to develop dark pigment in the fracture lines. The one at the bottom of the photograph is newer and lacks pigment. The tooth developed decay either before or after the newer crack occurred and required treatment to save it.

Cracks in teeth range from the obvious, visible fractures (Figure 1a) to less obvious (frequently invisible) microscopic fractures. Frequently, those that are difficult or impossible to see are more serious. Cracks can occur in the crown of the tooth (the part you can see protruding through the gums), or in the tooth’s root, where they can be difficult to diagnose and are generally more serious. Some cracks are easily repaired with bonded fillings, while some are too extensive to be fixed at all.

A bonded filling can sometimes buy enough time for the patient to plan for the expense of a crown. At the time of the photograph, the tooth in Figure 1b had been successfully restored with a filling for a few years. However, it can be difficult or impossible to achieve ideal tooth contours with such large fillings, increasing the likelihood of an overhanging dental restoration, food compaction injuries and other potential problems.

A fractured lower molar tooth with caries restored with white composite resin filling.

Figure 1b: Although the tooth appeared badly cracked, a bonded filling was able to repair the decay and stabilize the fracture long enough for the patient and dentist to consider the best long term option for restoring the tooth’s contours and protecting it against propagation of the crack. These would typically include an onlay or crown.

Considering the risk of a fracture spreading through the tooth, the most reliable protection is generally achieved with a full coverage restoration like a crown or onlay. Both of these restorations are made outside the mouth, where it’s usually easier to achieve ideal contours that will blend smoothly with the tooth. Moreover, without the protection of a full coverage restoration, the patient may be at increased risk of losing the tooth if the crack should spread deeper into the tooth.

Only a dentist is qualified to diagnose and appropriately treat the tooth, taking into account the extent of the crack as well as the patient’s symptoms, history, habits, personal needs, presence (or absence) of an opposing tooth, bite relationship between the teeth; and other factors.

Chipped teeth

A young boy sustained a large front tooth chip while playing hockey with no athletic mouth guard.

Figure 2: About half of this tooth was chipped away in a street hockey accident. The chip narrowly avoided exposing the tooth’s pulp (blood vessels and nerve).

Chipped teeth are more common in children and people who participate in sports. Chips in teeth vary in severity, depending on their cause. In children, front teeth are prone to chips, because they frequently project forward when they first come into the mouth—making them vulnerable to injuries. The teeth generally remain in such a position for a couple of years while the jaws are developing and the primary front (anterior) teeth are being lost. Children of that age often like to roughhouse with their friends and family members, and their teeth sometimes get in the way.

Adolescents and adults who play sports, and don’t use athletic mouthguards or full-face helmets to protect themselves, are also more likely to chip the front teeth.

Dental bonding is used to repair a large section of a chipped front tooth.

Figure 3: Bonding was performed on the tooth shown in the photograph in Figure 1. At the time of the photograph, it had been in place for six years without signs of failure. The tooth remained alive and showed no further symptoms. The use of an athletic mouthguard was encouraged for this active young boy.

Back teeth frequently chip, but usually the cause is related to biting or chewing hard foods, like ice or popcorn kernels. This is especially true if the chipped tooth has large, internally-retained dental restorations (for example, dental fillings, inlays) present. Chips that occur at, or above the gumline are generally more favorable than cracks, which can extend deep within the tooth and allow bacteria to get inside the pulp. Also, since dental bonding became available, chips above the gumline are comparatively easy to fix—at least long enough to consider other options.

With chipped teeth, each patient’s situation is unique. The size of the chip, the vitality of the tooth, as well as the patient’s oral habits, age, and general health help determine the treatment options.

There are many different treatment options, including fillings, inlays, veneers, inlays, and crowns.

Author: Thomas J. Greany, D.D.S. / Editor: Ken Lambrecht

This page was last updated on May 12, 2023.