False teeth were being fitted into the mouths of Etruscans, who lived in what is now central Italy, as early as 700 B.C. [source: James]. In many cases, the procedure for this involved banding loose teeth together using multi-ringed forms made of gold, with each empty ring fitting around an existing tooth. In spots where a tooth was missing, the band would contain a fake tooth (often another person's or animal's tooth) held in place by small pins [sources: Dunn, James].
But dentures -- removable replacements for missing teeth -- have come a long way since 700 B.C. Even compared to the dentures available to previous generations over the last century, which would frequently pop out of the mouth or fit poorly, today's dentures are often mistaken for the real McCoy. For people who have lost teeth through accidents or periodontal disease, dentures and dental implants now look so good that wearing them may even result in a more beautiful smile.
Fake teeth used in dentures are now made of either porcelain or plastic, and the base is usually plastic or acrylic. There are many different types of dentures available, and the kind you choose likely will depend on what degree of tooth loss you have (full or partial), as well as the amount of usable tissue that remains in your mouth once your teeth are gone.
Partial dentures make sense when some original teeth remain in the mouth following tooth loss. Those existing teeth increase the stability of the denture, which may be fixed (permanent) or precision (removable). In turn, the presence of the denture keeps other teeth from shifting around, as they would if the missing ones weren't replaced.
A fixed bridge, or fixed partial denture, uses crowns on the teeth located on either side of a gap to affix a fake tooth, which is cemented into place. These bridges can replace one or more teeth.
If all your teeth were missing, however, you'd probably consider complete dentures. There are two types of complete dentures: immediate and conventional. Following tooth removal but before the more permanent conventional dentures are ready, you'd need immediate dentures, which you'd wear during the two to three months required for healing following full tooth loss. The reason for this wait is that, while healing, the gums and jaws shrink, changing the shape of your mouth. In fact, even the immediate dentures will need readjustment during the wait until you're fitted for permanent dentures.
While removable dentures were once the primary way to replace missing teeth, more and more people are using dental implants instead. Find out what that's all about on the next page.