As years pass, I discover more and more that my teeth are precious commodities, requiring investments of both time and money. Not everyone can hold onto them for life. Eating foods that foster decay and neglecting proper oral hygiene are sure to leave a tooth or two — or more — behind. Just as threatening are bad genes, injuries and, frankly, aging. Needless to say that even diligence in flossing, brushing, check-ups and cleanings does not guarantee the retention of every tooth. Fortunately, dentistry, as both art and science, has advanced to the point where even tooth loss is correctable.
What Am I Paying For?
Dental implants allow patients to flash a full set of teeth without fear. These are not the old-fashioned dentures or false teeth worn by great-grandmothers and founding fathers. These are — in effect — root replacements that, like natural roots, are based in the jawbone and fuse with the bone itself. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, gums recede with age, making roots more vulnerable to the oral bacteria that instigates decay. Tooth loss may follow because the root is thus weakened. Implants function as strong and durable permanent roots. A dentist with specialized knowledge in this field, i.e. an implantologist, is equipped for this procedure.
Of course, the idea of installing replacements in the mouth extends back thousands of years. Yet hammering false teeth into the gums with a mallet, as in the case of an ancient Mayan woman, is neither desirable nor effective. The good news is that dental implants have come a long way from their primitive origins. Shaped like miniature screws, endosteal implants are more commonplace than their alternative, subperiosteal implants. The former are made of titanium and installed in the jawbone; the latter, planted under the gum but just above the jawbone. Subperiosteal implants are resorted to when the jawbone is degraded or otherwise unhealthy.
Worth noting are pre-implantation procedures that can fortify the jawbone for endosteal embedding. These include bone augmentation, where the jawbone is infused with growth and preserving agents to make it stronger. Also, sinus lift replenishes bone below the sinus, bone that may have declined because of missing back teeth. If the jawbone is too narrow, ridge expansion grafts bone material into spaces along the top of the jaw. I mention these preliminary surgeries because they add to the cost of the total implant package. I will turn to costs shortly.
The good news is that a dentist can embed dental implants with greater speed and consistency than in times past. This is due to the technology of three-dimensional imaging. With this tool, the implantologist can take a survey of the jaw’s anatomy to best determine the precise and optimal location for the synthetic root. This is an significant time-saving technique…and it can reduce the financial hit as well. Given the high value of new roots and crowns, i.e. the fabricated tooth that sits atop the implant and abutment, every dollar offset is precious.
How Much Am I Paying?
Like many dental placements — e.g. tooth crowns and bridges — implants can be pricey for modest income earners. A New York Times health feature from 2010 estimated a single implant can run between $3,000 and $4,500. Of course, everything is more expensive in New York but even half of $3,000 is burdensome for many. What makes this procedure so expensive? For one thing, this is surgery, plain and simple. The mouth is not independent of the body and invasive penetration of bone and other tissue can have wider consequences without extensive training of, and great care by, the dentist in question. Harvard Medical School scientists have written of the danger that dental infections and inflammation pose to heart health, for example. Implantation calls for experience, skill and state-of-the-art equipment.
Another factor in the high cost of implants is permanence. An implant is for life. Plus, it is tailored for an individual’s jaw in the same individual’s mouth. Each one is created specifically for the patient; it is not mass-produced and pulled off of a shelf. Therefore, the patient gets a smile that looks natural, fitting the contours of the face. As noted, technology helps to hasten the desired outcome of this process. Still, it is usually a multi-phase operation whereby the incision in the gum makes way for the implant; the abutment is added after the gum has healed; only then can the crown be inserted. Healing times vary among each recipient. Nevertheless, many hours are invested, especially if more than one implant is involved.
Further upticks in the price tag happen when the bone needs fortification. Each of the three preliminary treatments summarized above comes with its own charges for materials and labor. A sinus lift in and of itself can run over $1,500 for one side alone. A survey of implant dentists’ websites put ridge expansion procedures in the $600 to $700 range…more for multiple sites. These examples demonstrate how costs can soar for those who need a good deal of work before and during the actual implant insertion.
An immediate load dental implant is for those with strong bone whereby the entire embedding — from implant to crown — is performed in just one session. Another avenue is to stabilize dentures through a mini dental implant (MDI). This surgery is less invasive and the artificial root is smaller and thinner. These may put less of a financial demand on patients.
Is It Worth It?
Only an implant recipient can really answer this question categorically. However, they can also ask the reverse: Is sticking with dentures or bridges — each of which wear out — worth the cost of replacement? Is difficulty chewing worth the money saved on implants? Is an embarrassing smile the price to pay to avoid paying an implantologist? Again, each patient or prospect must answer those questions.
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