Dental implants

Expert reviewer, Dr Steve Preddy, Dentist and Head of Clinical Services, Bupa Dental Care
Next review due March 2021

Dental implants are now a well-accepted way of replacing missing teeth. Your dentist places them directly into your jawbone, where they provide an artificial replacement for the root of your missing tooth or teeth. They can then support crowns or dentures, in a similar way to the way that roots support natural teeth.

Image showing a dental implant

About dental implants

Dental implants are usually made of titanium and have an internal screw called an abutment that holds a false tooth (or teeth) in place. See the illustration above. After the implant is fitted, the bone surrounding it gradually grows up and attaches to the implant, holding it firmly in place. There are many different kinds of dental implant, which vary slightly in design. Your dentist will choose one that’s suitable for you.

A single dental implant can support one, or several, replacement teeth – so you don’t need to have one implant per replacement tooth. Implants can also be used to support a full or partial set of dentures. Your dentist will carefully assess how many implants are needed in your circumstances.

The whole process of getting dental implants can take several months and involves one or more surgical procedures. Dental implants aren’t usually available on the NHS.

If you look after your teeth and implants properly, they can last as long as your natural teeth.

The dental implant process

The process of having dental implants can vary quite a lot, so you need to discuss with your dentist what will happen in your case. Be prepared for it to take between three and nine months to complete (sometimes longer).

Having dental implants typically involves several stages.

  • Placement of the implant into your jaw and attachment of the abutment (which holds the false teeth in place) to the implant. This will be a one- or two-stage procedure.
  • Fusion of your new implant with the surrounding bone, which can take from six weeks to six months. You may be offered temporary artificial teeth to wear over this period.
  • Construction and fitting of your new artificial teeth onto your implants.

See our section on ‘what happens during dental implant surgery?’ below for more information about how these stages are carried out and, in some cases, combined.

There are two other stages which may be involved in your dental implant treatment.

  • Tooth extraction (removal). If you have a problem with one of your teeth, the plan may be to remove it and replace it with an implant. If that’s the case, your dentist will explain how this may affect the process and timescale of your treatment.
  • Bone grafting. If you don’t have enough bone in your jaw to support your dental implant, your dentist can add new bone. This comes from elsewhere in your body, or can be from an animal source. See our FAQ on bone grafting below for more information.

Can anyone have dental implants?

Dental implants are suitable for most adults who are in good general health and have healthy gums. They aren’t suitable for children and young people under 18 because the underlying bones are still growing.

Your dentist may not recommend dental implants if you:

However, each case is different. Tell your dentist about any medical problems you have, and they’ll let you know if implants are an option for you.

Alternatives to dental implants

Alternatives to dental implants include:

  • removable dentures (false teeth) – plastic or metal frameworks that hold one or more false teeth
  • a bridge – false teeth that are fixed onto the natural teeth on either side of the missing one

See our information on replacing missing teeth, and have a chat with your dentist about your options.

Deciding on dental implants

Before you decide to have dental implants, try to find out as much as possible about them. Don’t rush into a decision. Talk to your dentist about the alternatives and what might be best in your particular circumstances.

The General Dental Council states that dentists must have the right training for any procedure they carry out. So, it’s important that the dentist who provides your implants has been suitably trained to do this. Don’t be afraid to ask your dentist how much experience they have.

You should also be aware of the costs. Dental implants aren’t usually available on the NHS. You should be given a written estimate of the cost of your treatment before it begins.

Preparing for dental implant surgery

If you decide to go ahead with implants, you’ll have some X-rays. This is so your dentist can check the amount of bone in your jaw and how healthy it is. X-rays also show the position of other structures in your jawbone, such as your nerves. You may need to have a CT scan if the X-rays don’t provide enough information. Your dentist will use the images from these tests to decide where it’s best to place the implant.

If you smoke, your dentist will probably strongly encourage you to stop smoking for good. Smoking can make it less likely that your dental implants will be a success.

The process of having dental implants will involve one or more surgical procedures. Ask your dentist beforehand whether you’ll need to arrange for someone else to take you home afterwards.

Your dentist will talk to you about what will happen before, during, and after the procedure, and any pain you might have. It’s really important that you understand what to expect so you can decide whether to go ahead. Your dentist should go through the risks as well as the benefits. Think about any questions you want to ask – maybe write them down in advance so you don’t forget. You’re free to change your mind about having the procedure. If you decide to go ahead, you’ll be asked to sign a consent form.

What happens during dental implant surgery?

Fitting the implant and the abutment

Most people have dental implants fitted in a dentist’s surgery under local anaesthesia. This completely blocks pain from your mouth and you’ll stay awake during the procedure. They may also offer you a sedative to help you relax. For more information, see our FAQ below – ‘Will having dental implants hurt?’

A general anaesthetic is only rarely used, usually for very complicated cases. If you need a general anaesthetic, you’ll have to be admitted to hospital for the procedure.

Your dentist will be able to tell you how long your procedure is expected to take. It may range from 30 minutes for a single implant to several hours for multiple ones.

Once the anaesthetic has taken effect, your dentist will make a cut in your gum and drill a small hole in your jawbone. The implant will fit into this hole.

You’ll then need to have the abutment fitted – this is the internal screw that holds a false tooth (or teeth) in place. Your dentist can do this in one of two ways.

  • In one-stage treatment, the implant rod and the abutment are fitted at the same time.
  • In two-stage treatment, the implant rod will be buried under your gum while your bone heals (you won’t see it in your mouth). You’ll have another operation a few months later to attach the abutment.

Attaching replacement teeth to the implant

A dental technician, working closely with your dentist, will construct your new artificial tooth (or teeth). These will usually be attached to your implant at a later date after your implant has settled, but may be fitted immediately. Your dentist will discuss the best option for you in your particular circumstances.

If your treatment plan is to delay fitting your final artificial teeth, you may have a visible gap for a few months. To avoid this, your dentist may offer to fit a temporary bridge or dentures.

Your final new teeth may be fixed in place or you may be able to remove them when you need to clean them. Your dentist will make sure that they fit properly, match your other teeth and feel comfortable.

What to expect afterwards

After your dental implant has been fitted you may need to rest until the effects of the anaesthetic have passed. You can usually go home as soon as you feel ready.

It can take several hours before the feeling comes back into your mouth after a local anaesthetic. Until it does, be careful if you have any hot food or drinks. It’s probably best to wait until the feeling has returned to your mouth; otherwise, you might burn yourself without realising.

You may wish to take some over-the-counter pain relief medicines to help with any discomfort as the anaesthetic wears off.

If you have had a general anaesthetic or a sedative, make sure someone can take you home. And ask someone to stay with you until it wears off. Having a general anaesthetic or sedative can really take it out of you. You might find that you're not so coordinated or that it's difficult to think clearly. This should pass within 24 hours. In the meantime, don't drive, drink alcohol, operate machinery or sign anything important.

Recovering from dental implant surgery

Your dentist will give you instructions on how to care for your mouth and teeth when you first go home.

If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or dentist for advice.

Only eat soft foods for the first week after having dental implant surgery.

Your dentist may prescribe you antibiotics and an antiseptic mouthwash to reduce the risk of your implant getting infected. Or they might ask you to start taking the antibiotics an hour before you have dental implant surgery.

You’ll need to see your dentist more often after surgery so they can check your progress. The time it takes to make a full recovery from dental implant surgery will vary depending on your treatment plan. Follow your dentist's advice about what to do during this time.

Once you have made a full recovery, your implants and replacement teeth should work the same as natural teeth. You should be able to eat as normal. It’s really important to brush and floss your teeth regularly to keep them healthy. This may take a little more time than you would normally have spent cleaning your teeth. Your dentist or dental hygienist can show you how. See our FAQ below on caring for dental implants for more information.

If you damage one of the teeth attached to an implant, your dentist can probably remove it and put in a replacement. It’s unusual for the implant itself to become damaged but, if so, your dentist may be able to place another one alongside it. However, they’d usually need to remove the broken implant.

Side-effects of dental implant surgery

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure.

You may have some swelling and discomfort around the implant area. You can take an over-the-counter painkiller such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to help with this. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or dentist for advice.

If you have pain which is more severe than this, is increasing or does not ease after a few days contact your dentist.

Complications of dental implant surgery

Complications are when problems occur during or after the procedure. The possible complications of any procedure include an unexpected reaction to the anaesthetic, infection or excessive bleeding.

Complications that can happen after having dental implant surgery include the following.

  • Nerve damage. You have nerves which come from your lower jaw, lower teeth and gums, and your bottom lip. If these nerves are damaged by the implant, you may feel tingling or numbness. It may also be painful. These feelings may go away, or they may be permanent. X-rays and CT scans before the procedure help your dentist see the position of these nerves in your jawbone so they can avoid them.
  • Loose implants. It’s possible your jawbone won't fuse with the implant properly and the implant becomes loose. This isn't usually painful, but the implant then won't be able to support false teeth. You may need to have another implant fitted. Your dentist will ask you to attend regular check-ups to make sure your implants are still secure.

Ask your dentist about any possible complications and how likely they are to happen in your particular circumstances.

Frequently asked questions

  • No, it shouldn’t do. While your dentist is fitting your implant you’ll be awake but you won’t feel any pain. Your dentist will give you a local anaesthetic injection to numb the area where the implant will be fitted. This is the same type of injection you’d have for other dental work such as a filling, so it may be familiar.

    If you do feel any pain, tell your dentist.

    Your dentist knows that some people feel anxious when they have dental treatment. If that’s how you feel, talk to your dentist about it beforehand. They’ll possibly offer you some type of sedation to lessen your anxiety and help you relax during your procedure. A sedative can be:

    • inhaled as ‘gas and air’ (a combination of nitrous oxide and oxygen) through a mask over your nose
    • swallowed in tablet or liquid form before the procedure starts
    • injected using a fine plastic tube (cannula) into a vein on the back of your hand or in your arm

    Ask your dentist to explain your options for sedation, and which may be the best for you.

    A general anaesthetic, where you’re asleep, is rarely used for dental implant surgery.

    After your dental implant surgery you may feel some discomfort in your mouth for a few days. If you feel you need them, over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen should help. If you have any questions about taking these, ask your pharmacist or dentist.

    You may find it helpful to read our information about dental anxiety.

  • Good oral hygiene (looking after your teeth) is vital to make sure that your implants last as long as possible. Clean and floss your teeth and gums, including your replacement teeth, every day. You may need special floss or interdental toothbrushes – ask your dentist for advice on caring for your implants.

    Although it may take longer to brush your teeth with implants, it’s worth putting the time in. Dental implants can last for your lifetime if you care for them properly. If you don’t clean them every day, they may develop calculus and plaque. This can lead to a gum infection or bleeding and can feel sore, just as would happen with natural teeth. And this may lead to your implant becoming loose.

    It’s also important to visit your dentist and dental hygienist regularly. Your dentist may ask to see you more often for the first few months after you have implants to check there aren’t any problems. Your dental care will then be similar as for natural teeth.

  • The time it takes for you to have teeth replaced using dental implants can vary widely, depending on the process your dentist recommends.

    Dental implant treatment can take several months to complete. After fitting the implants, your dentist may advise you to wait between three to eight months before having false teeth attached. This is to allow time for the implant to become fixed into your bone before any stress is put on it.

    During this time your dentist will make sure your appearance isn’t affected too much. They’ll let you know what your options are, one of which may be to wear temporary dentures.

    However, in some cases a dentist may recommend that implants are fitted and artificial teeth attached on the same day. This procedure isn’t suitable for everyone.

    Ask your dentist how long your treatment will take to be completed. If it’s going to take longer than you had hoped, try to be patient. Your dentist will have planned your schedule carefully to try to make sure you have successful implants that last for as long as possible.

  • If you think you grind your teeth, let your dentist know so they can account for this when they plan your treatment.

    Grinding your teeth, which is called bruxism, is probably a very common habit. It can happen while you’re asleep or awake. Your dentist will be able to pick up signs and symptoms of bruxism.

    Grinding your teeth will put extra pressure on implants. Your dentist may recommend placing additional implants to support the artificial tooth or teeth. They’ll also use materials to make false teeth that are strong enough to withstand the extra pressure.

    Your dentist may also suggest you wear a mouth guard – or splint – at night to protect your teeth.

    Your dentist will be able to discuss how likely it is that implants will be successful in your case.

  • Bone grafting is surgery to increase the amount of bone in your jaw.

    For dental implants to be successful there must be enough bone to hold and support the implant. There are many reasons why you may not have enough bone in your jaw. These include having gum disease and wearing dentures.

    Bone grafting usually involves taking bone from somewhere else in your body and adding it to your jaw where the implant will go. It’s usually taken from another area of your jaw, but may also come from your hip or shin. Depending on where the bone is taken from, you may be able to have the procedure done under local anaesthesia. If it’s taken from your hip, you’ll need to go into hospital and have a general anaesthetic.

    Your dentist can also use artificial bone or materials made from the bone of animals if you prefer. But your own bone is usually considered the best method. If you want to know more, ask your dentist to discuss the different types of graft materials with you.

    If you need to have a bone graft, your dental implant treatment will take longer. You’ll probably need to wait between three months and a year after your bone graft before you can have an implant fitted. However, some people may be able to have bone grafting carried out at the same time as their implant is fitted.

    If more bone needs to be added to your mouth before dental implants can be fitted, your dentist will discuss with you the best way to do this. Feel free to ask questions so that you fully understand what will be involved and how long the process will take.

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  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, March 2018
    Expert reviewer, Dr Steve Preddy, Dentist and Head of Clinical Services, Bupa Dental Care
    Next review due March 2021