Because people are living longer and have more stressful lives, their teeth are exposed to many more years of crack-inducing habits, such as clenching, grinding, and chewing on hard objects (like ice). These habits make our teeth more susceptible to cracks.
How do I know if my tooth is cracked?
Cracked teeth show a variety of symptoms, including erratic pain when chewing, pain during release from biting pressure, or pain when a tooth is exposed to temperature extremes. In many cases, the pain may come and go, and general dentists may have difficulty locating which tooth is causing the discomfort.
Why does a cracked tooth hurt?
Understanding the anatomy of a tooth helps to inform why a cracked tooth hurts. Inside the tooth, under the white enamel and a hard layer called the dentin, is the inner soft tissue called the pulp. The loose pulp is a connective tissue that contains cells, blood vessels and nerves.
When the outer hard tissues of a tooth are cracked, chewing can cause the pieces to move. This can irritate the pulp. When the pressure from biting is released, the crack can close quickly, resulting in a momentary, sharp pain. When chewing, this process repeats over and over again. Eventually, the pulp will become damaged to the point that it can no longer heal itself. At that point, the tooth will not only hurt when chewing, but may also become sensitive to temperature extremes. Over time, a cracked tooth may begin to hurt even at rest. Extensive cracks can open the pulp tissue to infection, and this often spreads to the bone and gum tissue surrounding the tooth.
How will my cracked tooth be treated?
There are many different types of cracked teeth. The treatment and outcome for your tooth depends on the type, location, and extent of the crack.
Craze lines are tiny cracks that affect only the outer enamel. These cracks are extremely common in adult teeth. Craze lines are very shallow, cause no pain, and are of no concern beyond appearance.
When a cusp (the pointed part of the chewing surface) becomes weakened, a fracture sometimes results. The weakened cusp may break off by itself or may have to be removed by a dentist. A fractured cusp rarely damages the pulp, so root canal treatment is seldom needed. Your dentist will usually restore your tooth with a full crown.
This type of crack extends from the chewing surface of the tooth vertically towards the root. A cracked tooth is not completely separated into two distinct segments. Because of the position of the crack, damage to the pulp is common. Root canal treatment is frequently needed to treat the injured pulp. Your general dentist will help restore your tooth with a crown after the root canal in order to hold the pieces together and protect the cracked tooth.
At times, the crack may extend below the gingival tissue line. Early diagnosis is important. Even with high magnification and special lighting, it is sometimes difficult to determine the extent of a crack. A cracked tooth left untreated will only get worse, sometimes resulting in the loss of the tooth. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to save cracked teeth.
A split tooth is often the long-term result of a cracked tooth. A split tooth is identified by a crack with distinct segments that can be separated. Unfortunately, a split tooth cannot be saved.
Vertical Root Fracture
Vertical root fractures are cracks that begin in the root of the tooth and extend toward the chewing surface. They often show minimal signs and symptoms and may, therefore, go unnoticed for some time. Vertical root fractures are often discovered when the surrounding bone and gum become infected. Treatment usually involves extraction of the tooth.
After treatment for a cracked tooth, will my tooth completely heal?
Unlike a broken bone, the fracture in a cracked tooth will not heal. In spite of treatment, some cracks may continue to progress and separate, resulting in eventual loss of the tooth. Placement of a crown on a cracked tooth provides maximum protection but does not guarantee success in all cases.
The treatment for a cracked tooth is important because it will relieve pain and reduce the likelihood that it will get worse. Once treated, most cracked teeth continue to function and provide years of comfortable chewing.
What can I do to prevent my teeth from cracking?
While cracked teeth are not completely preventable, you can take some steps to make your teeth less susceptible to cracks.
- Don’t chew on hard objects such as ice, un-popped popcorn kernels or pens.
- Don’t clench or grind your teeth.
- If you clench or grind your teeth while you sleep, talk to your general dentist about getting a retainer or other mouth guard to protect your teeth.
- Always wear a mouth guard or protective mask when playing contact sports.