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Imagine this: An implant surgeon is performing a thorough examination of your mouth. The surgeon rotates your jaw from side to side and up and down, looking for the optimal sites in which to place dental implants — and the proper size, shape and orientation for the implants to have. He or she may test several alternatives, considering the underlying anatomical structures, and the bone density and quality that the examination reveals. Finally, a surgical plan is developed: This includes a set of precise specifications for implant position, size and depth, and a template for creating a perfectly fitting set of replacement teeth. But no invasive procedures of any type have been performed so far. In fact, you aren't even present.

Welcome to the world of computer-guided dental implant surgery. What we have described is one step in the process that allows you to receive a set of replacement teeth with the minimum amount of surgery (and time spent in the dental chair), and the maximum level of preplanning foresight. It can result in faster overall treatment time, less discomfort, and an outcome that pleases everyone. Let's look a little more closely at the entire process of computer-guided implant surgery — a procedure at the forefront of dental implant technology.

The First Phase: Making A Virtual Model

It all begins with a complete examination and modeling of your existing teeth, gum and jaw structures. In many cases, a physical impression (replica) of the jaws is made, which will aid in planning the location of the new teeth. But the modeling doesn't stop there: A high-tech, three-dimensional CT (computed tomography) scan is also performed. This allows us to examine the structures (including bone, nerve tissue and sinus cavities) which lieinside the jaw. It is often accomplished using “cone-beam” CT technology, in which the scanning device quickly captures a complete digital image of internal structures as it rotates around your head.

The next step of the process relies on powerful computers and sophisticated software to take the raw CT scan data and translate it into a 3-D model of the jaw. This virtual model can be manipulated on a computer screen — rotated, measured, even “operated” on — so that we can visualize the placement of dental implants and determine their optimum position with a high degree of accuracy. Using this technology, it's now possible for us to evaluate anatomical structures virtually — structures it once would have taken surgery to reveal — and to plan out the implant procedure accordingly.

The 3-D model we have developed is then used for two purposes: to create a precise guide for the implant surgery, and to allow the dental laboratory to pre-manufacture a set of replacement teeth that will fit precisely in the jaw. An advanced set of CAD/CAM (computer aided design/manufacture) processes is used to generate the physical objects — in this case, the surgical guide and the prosthetic teeth. Depending on your individual situation, the new teeth may be attached the same day as implant surgery, or after a healing period of 6 to 12 weeks. In either case, our precision modeling ensures that they will fit perfectly with the implants and the jaw.

Implant Surgery: Following the Plan

The implant surgery itself is typically performed under local anesthesia, and often requires no sutures (stitches). In the surgical procedure, the template we have produced (which resembles a nightguard or athletic mouthguard) is securely (but temporarily) fixed in position on the jaw. The openings in this template form precise guides for the placement of the implants — accurate in terms of position, width and depth. In fact, the implants fit so perfectly into these prepared sites that we can have new teeth placed the same day as implant surgery.

Since so many of the details have been accomplished in the planning stages, computer-guided implant surgery is typically uneventful for the patient. It can result in shorter time in the chair, less discomfort during recovery — and a highly pleasing result. It has even been called the most significant innovation in implant technology since osseointegration — the fundamental process by which a dental implant becomes fused with the bone.

Bone graft.Do you think of bone as a hard, rigid material that never changes? In fact bone remodels itself all the time: Your body is constantly depositing new bone cells and removing old ones. In the case of the bone that supports your teeth, this process can be helpful or harmful. For example, the jawbone's adaptability allows an orthodontist to move teeth into a better position with braces. But in the case of losing a tooth as an adult, the bone changes that result can have serious consequences.

When teeth are lost, the bone that used to surround them begins to melt away or “resorb.” Tooth-supporting bone can also be lost when you have periodontal (gum) disease. If you loose enough teeth and bone, your facial features will sag, giving you a more aged appearance; it can also complicate treatment to replace your missing teeth. Fortunately, with modern bone grafting-techniques, the bone that has been lost can be built up again. This can benefit both your health and appearance by strengthening your jawbone, allowing more effective tooth replacement, and increasing support to your facial features.

Bone grafting is a minor surgical procedure that is normally done in a dental office. An incision is made in your gum to gain access to the bone beneath it, and then grafting material is added. Most often, the grafting material is processed bone minerals around which your body will actually deposit new bone cells.

The grafting material itself can come from your own body, but very often it is bone from an animal or human donor that has been treated by a laboratory to make it sterile and safe. It can even be a synthetic substance. Grafting material comes in a variety of forms: powder, granules, putty or a gel that can be injected through a syringe. The graft, which is generally covered by a collagen membrane for optimum bone repair, will act as a scaffold onto which your body will build new bone.

Uses for Bone Grafts

Bone grafting for dental implants.

Bone grafts are used in dentistry to accomplish the following treatment goals:

  • Saving Teeth — When severe periodontal disease causes bone loss, teeth can become loose and at risk of being lost. In order to save them, the bone around them can be regenerated through grafting; this increases bone support and helps keep them in place.
  • Tooth Extractions — These days, it is very common to deposit bone grafting material into a tooth socket after a tooth has been removed. That way, should you want to replace your tooth with a dental implant later on, that option will be available.
  • Dental Implants — In this optimal tooth-replacement system, a small titanium post embedded in the jawbone is attached to a highly realistic dental crown, permanently replacing the missing tooth. Implants require good bone volume and density to achieve their excellent functionality and high success rates. If you have already experienced bone loss, a graft can help regenerate enough bone to place the implant successfully.

What to Expect

The procedure for placing a bone graft usually requires only local anesthesia, though oral or IV (intravenous) sedatives can also be used to achieve a higher state of relaxation. Since a small incision is made in your gum tissue to gain access to the bone that will receive the graft, you may experience some soreness in the area after the surgery. This can usually be managed by over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication and/or pain relievers, as well as ice therapy after the procedure. Any discomfort should only last a day or two. Then, over the next several months, your body will replace the graft with its own bone, reversing the decline in bone quantity you have experienced.

Related Articles

Bone Grafting - Dear Doctor Magazine

Can Dentists Rebuild Bone? Yes they can! It is very important to maintain bone volume following removal of a tooth so that dental implants remain a viable option for tooth replacement. This is easily accomplished with today's routine bone-grafting techniques... Read Article