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Dental Bridges / Fixed Partial Dentures

What are Dental Bridges?

bridge-preparation-tooth-reduction-options-missing-teeth

Preparation of teeth for a 3-unit porcelain fused to metal bridge.

A dental bridge is a type of partial denture, built to replace one or more missing teeth. Dental bridges are held in place in the mouth by slipping them over, and cementing them to, specially prepared abutment teeth, adjacent to the missing teeth. A fixed dental bridge means the bridge is cemented onto the abutment teeth, and is not intended to be removed by the patient. Dental bridges can be made from a variety of metals, porcelain, ceramic, tooth colored resin, or combinations of these materials. They can be made to look and function very much like natural teeth.

The process of creating a dental bridge

The following describes the steps involved in a typical bridge preparation process. Your procedure can vary from the procedure described. The laboratory process involved in making the actual bridge is similar to the process for crowns.

Anesthetic

The teeth to be crowned with retainers are usually anesthetized by injecting local anesthetic around the nerve(s) that supply sensation to the teeth. Discomfort from the injection can be minimized by use of a topical numbing gel for a minute or two prior to the injection.

Pre-impression

Frequently, a preliminary impression (mold) is made of the teeth before they are altered. The material used most for crown impressions is polyvinyl siloxane, a dimensionally stable and extremely accurate elastomer (meaning it’s stretchy, but returns to the shape it takes when it cures after a minute or two). Other materials may be used. The impression can be used to produce casts, from which a temporary bridge can be made. The temporary bridge will be worn while the final bridge is being made in a laboratory, a process that can take a couple of weeks. The temporary bridge holds the abutment teeth in position and reduces sensitivity after the teeth have been prepared.

Shade Matching

If the bridge is to be tooth colored, a shade matching guide will be used to determine the shade of your natural teeth. The shade should be matched in natural lighting, also called full-spectrum lighting. Fluorescent lights can make teeth appear blue to grey; Incandescent lights can make them appear too yellow. Dental porcelains and resins available today can produce a stunningly precise match for the shade and optical properties of your natural tooth enamel, allowing a bridge to be made that matches your teeth nearly imperceptibly.

Isolation

The teeth are often isolated from mouth structures like the tongue and cheeks while they’re being prepared to prevent injuries from instrumentation used to prepare the tooth. An isolation barrier known as a rubber dam or dental dam is frequently used, but there are other retraction devices in use. Some dentists may simply use cotton rolls and cheek shields. It’s important that shade matching be completed prior to isolation of the teeth. That’s because teeth lighten somewhat (temporarily) when they’ve been isolated for more than a few minutes. Shade matching teeth that have been isolated can result in a shade match that is too light.

Core preparation

The abutment teeth are prepared by removing old restorative materials (if necessary), removing any decay, and (if necessary) filling in any deep holes or missing corners of the teeth. It may be necessary to place small metal (normally titanium) pins in the teeth to rebuild the portion of the teeth that will be crowned. The dentist may use any of a variety of filling materials to rebuild the teeth, including composite resin, glass ionomer, and silver amalgam.

Core buildups are considered a separate billable procedure from the bridge itself. Also, a distinction is made between buildups, which involve all or a substantial portion of the core of the tooth, and bases—those that require only a small amount of filling material in the core to build out a minor chip. Discuss with your dentist in advance whether a complete core build-up is going to be required or not to avoid unexpected costs.

Retainer preps

The outer surfaces of the abutment teeth are reduced in all dimensions (biting surface and sides) by 0.75mm to 3mm to make room for the retainer crowns that will be placed on the teeth. The walls of the preparation are tapered to allow the crowns to be slipped down over the teeth. A ledge (margin) is created around the circumference of the abutment teeth against which the retainer crowns will be tightly sealed.

When you have invasive dental procedures like bridges done, the dentist will review your health history. If you have replacement joints (e.g. total knee, hip, etc.), you may be pre-medicated with antibiotics for the procedure. If you have certain types of heart murmurs or replacement heart valves, you may also need to take an antibiotic pre-medication prior to the procedure.

If you are anxious about dental procedures, your dentist may recommend sedating you for the procedure. There are several methods of relaxing patients for dental treatment, including oral anti-anxiety pills; inhaled anti-anxiety medication like nitrous oxide; and intravenous anti-anxiety medication.

Impression of preps

An impression of the prepared teeth is made, taking care to gently reflect the gum tissue away from the teeth so that a crisp imprint of the preparation margins will be obtained. Often, the dentist will place retraction cord in the trough between the gums and prepared teeth prior to making the impression. The cord will be removed after the impression is made.

Temporary bridge

The impression/casts that were made prior to preparing the teeth can now be used to make a temporary bridge. One technique involves the use of a denture tooth on the cast in the position of the missing tooth or teeth. From that, a vinyl tray can be made that will serve as a mold for the temporary bridge. The vinyl tray is filled with a gooey tooth-colored resin material, having the consistency of thick syrup, and placed over the prepared teeth. The resin material will gel in about a minute, and the tray can be removed from the mouth. The space between the prepared teeth and the impression of the unprepared teeth is now filled with temporary crown material, which completely hardens in about two minutes. Once hardened, the temporary bridge will be trimmed to proper fit, polished, and cemented onto the teeth with temporary cement.

Labwork and final bridge seat

The final bridge will generally be made by a technician in a dental prosthetics laboratory. When your final bridge is ready, a second visit is necessary to remove the temporary bridge and replace it with the permanent bridge. About half of the time, a patient will ask to be anesthetized for the second visit, to avoid any discomfort associated with removing the temporary bridge and cleaning the temporary cement from the prepared teeth. Teeth which have been endodontically treated (root canal) generally do not need to be anesthetized for the delivery of a permanent bridge, although many dentists prefer the patient to be numb for the bridge preparation due to the potential for discomfort associated with soft tissue management (gum retraction, etc.).

Sometimes an appointment will be scheduled to try in the reinforcing framework (ceramic bridges) before the bridge is completed. This is commonly done for long-span, and multiple-section bridges to verify passive, accurate fit on the teeth before the technician invests the time to sculpt the ceramics.

Adjust and Polish

The functional biting relationship (occlusion) of the bridge may need to be adjusted slightly, and the crowns/pontics (prosthetic replacement teeth) re-polished. This should take just a few minutes under normal circumstances.

Some advantages and benefits of dental bridges

  • Replacement of missing teeth with fixed bridgework prevents the adjacent and opposing teeth from moving/drifting.
  • Replacement of missing teeth with fixed bridgework preserves the normal bite relationship between the teeth, allowing for better chewing force distribution, and preventing unnecessary tooth restoration caused by improper meshing of the teeth.
  • Prevention of tooth movement with fixed bridgework can prevent loss of vertical dimension of occlusion (bite collapse), a condition in which loss of the back teeth leads to the lower jaw rotating closer to the upper jaw than it should. Subsequent shortening of the chewing muscles causes increased chewing muscle contraction forces and frequent jaw joint problems.
  • Fixed bridgework allows near normal chewing efficiency, so that food can be properly reduced for normal digestion.
  • Fixed bridges can be made with excellent cosmetic attributes. With modern ceramics, they are nearly imperceptible in the mouth. They look and feel to the patient like their natural teeth.
  • Fixed bridges take only a couple of weeks to complete, in contrast to replacement of missing teeth with dental implants, which often take months to complete.
  • Fixed bridges do not move or shift in the mouth when chewing, like removable partial dentures can.

Potential disadvantages and risks of dental bridges

  • Fixed bridges require the abutment teeth to be altered through the removal of tooth structure. This introduces the possibility of inflammation and tooth abscesses for the abutment teeth. In many cases, the prospective abutment teeth are completely unrestored, and would otherwise not require any dental treatment.
  • The abutment teeth will be more heavily loaded with chewing forces when they are supporting a bridge. If the abutments have been heavily restored (and thus, substantially weakened) from previous tooth decay and other damage, they may be unable to support a bridge long term and could fail—a sort of domino effect.
  • If one of the teeth involved in a bridge fails due to decay or other reasons, the entire bridge could be lost, necessitating additional dentistry on multiple teeth due to the failure of one (domino effect again).
  • Bridges can be difficult to clean around effectively, increasing the chance that secondary (recurrent) decay might occur around one or more retainer crowns.
  • Inflammation and/or infection from the preparation procedures can occur, and may be more likely with ceramic retainer crowns, because it is necessary to remove more tooth structure than for metal crowns. This is because porcelain must be thicker than metal to have sufficient strength. Studies aiming to quantify the risk of tooth abscess following crown preparation have shown an abscess rate of about 10%.
  • If the teeth being prepared are alive (vital), they will normally be anesthetized. Local anesthetic has risks of its own, which are generally considered minor compared to the advantages of having the procedure performed comfortably.
  • Ceramic bridges can chip, requiring repair or replacement.
  • Microscopic leakage (microleakage) can occur along the interface between the retainer crowns and their abutment teeth (at the margin), leading to sensitivity and decay.
  • All dental procedures can produce lip dryness, chapping and cracking. Some patients develop cold sores following dental treatment. Some degree of post-operative discomfort frequently accompanies crown preparation, including tenderness to biting and cold which is normally temporary. Some studies have shown prolonged sensitivity of over a year in certain patients.

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

This page was last updated on February 14, 2018.

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