Dentures are also called "false teeth," but for centuries, dentures were actually made from real teeth. As early as 700 BC, people who lost some or all of their teeth could have them replaced with teeth from animals or other humans. Often the teeth of fallen soldiers and executed prisoners -- and sometimes even individuals who were alive but impoverished -- were used to fashion dentures. Donkeys, horses, elephants and hippopotamuses had their teeth and tusks removed and cut down to size too. These practices continued up until about the mid-1800s when porcelain and hard rubber came into use. By the 20th century, dentures were being manufactured mostly with acrylic resin and other plastics [source: Bodies...The Exhibition].
Using artificial or replacement teeth does more than improve your smile. Teeth are most obviously needed for chewing food and making it small enough to swallow and be absorbed by the body, but teeth also support the face and its structure.
Whether someone has straight, white and healthy teeth or crooked and less-than-pearly ones, simply having a set of teeth in the mouth keeps the cheeks, chin and jaw in place and conditioned. Missing even a few teeth can cause a chewing -- or bite -- imbalance, and a person's face can begin to change shape and even sag or cave in. Having dentures or replacement teeth is important for eating and ingesting to keep a body healthy, and it's vital for cosmetic and even physiological reasons -- affecting the balance of the head, neck and shoulders and, in turn, a person's balance.
Although dentures in the 21st century are made from manmade materials, the living materials in a mouth support them and keep them in place. Once fitted, dentures are pretty solid and stable, but the human mouth is constantly moving and changing. Wearing dentures means actively participating in these changes by caring for the whole mouth and the denture appliance.
We'll look at filling in the gaps between, next.
Fitting and Wearing Dentures
Getting dentures is a very personalized process. Depending on the condition of an individual's teeth, gums and jaws, a dentist will recommend partial or full and permanent or removable dentures. While most types are hard acrylics, some come with soft liners designed to be more comfortable for people with problems clenching their jaws, or with gum issues and sensitivity [source: Williamson].
A complete examination of the mouth and teeth helps the dentist determine if some natural teeth will be used to anchor, or support a partial denture, or if more extractions of teeth need to take place for fitting a full set. Sometimes a periodontist works with the dentist to address any issues with gum health or periodontal disease.
If one or several teeth are being replaced, a bridge, or partial denture usually can be fitted and secured by clasps to remaining natural teeth. A removable partial comes in and out of the mouth by clasping onto anchors attached to teeth, and often these anchor teeth need to be crowned in order to secure the clasps. Metal clasps are less expensive while precision attachments cost more but are less visible.
Overdentures are also removable and they fit over remaining teeth while also filling in missing teeth with attached artificial ones. A permanent bridge also is anchored to surrounding natural teeth, but it is fastened securely and only removable by a dentist. Partials of all kinds come with a pink base designed to resemble the natural gum line [sources: ADA; NIH]. Implants are another option, though a very expensive one, where individual teeth are inserted into the jaw bone with screws. These are not traditional dentures [source: Alderman].
Full dentures are fitted after teeth are removed and the dentist can measure and cast the upper and lower gum lines. Some full dentures are made right after the teeth have been extracted, and these immediate dentures are ready to wear right away. Often, immediate dentures need to be refitted or adjusted after several months as gums heal and shrink back.
There is a waiting period with conventional dentures, however, as they're fitted after gums have healed from the tooth removal. They typically don't need major adjustments, but a patient has to wait without their new teeth until their conventional dentures are ready [source: ADA].
Getting used to either partial or full dentures takes several weeks to months, as the tongue and cheeks are conditioned to support the work of the new appliance. Eating and talking can be difficult at first, but often the transition just takes some time and practice, and speech returns to normal and chewing becomes more balanced on both sides of the mouth. There is a learning curve with hot, cold and crispy foods and the lack of sensitivity in artificial teeth, so it's important to be cautious while starting out. Often saliva production increases, as well, but it usually subsides after mouth muscles are retrained. Some relearning also comes with mouth movements involved in laughing or sneezing and having dentures slip out, for example, but a good fit will keep these concerns to a minimum [source: ADA].
If you don't want your dentures to slip, can't you just slather on some adhesive? We'll look at that sticky issue, next.
Some Denture Do's and Don'ts
While there seem to be a lot of instructions that come along with getting dentures, two of the most important cover a lot of territory: Do take your dentures out overnight for cleaning and don't accept or try to adjust to an ill-fitting set. Cleaning the teeth -- real and manmade -- and caring for and resting the gums and mouth are essential for denture wearers, and having a proper fit ensures getting the most out of them for the longest amount of time.
Adhesives can fall in both the "do" and "don't" categories. While muscles in the tongue and cheeks are adjusting to the new dentures, an adhesive may help prevent the dentures from excess slippage while you re-learn how to chew and talk. Using adhesives for the long term and to secure improperly fit dentures, however, is considered a bad idea because it can lead to mouth sores and changes in the way facial muscles compensate [source: ADA]. If you feel like you have to use an adhesive to make your dentures fit, it may be time to have them adjusted.
Some individuals just prefer the extra security of wearing an adhesive, even with properly fit dentures and that is generally fine [source: CUCDM]. Powder adhesives work well if used temporarily, and they may be easier to clean off of appliances than pastes. And if you choose to use a paste, use a small amount and clean your dentures very well after removing them to maintain a proper fit and good oral hygiene. A dentist or prosthodondist -- a specialist in dental appliance care and shaping -- can advise you on adhesive usage [source: ACP].
Taking dentures out overnight is a definite "do." If they're left in too long, infections, swelling, and mouth and gum sores can develop and bacteria levels will grow on teeth and/or dentures. Gums also need to rest or inflammation will develop. However, don't let your dentures dry out overnight or they can lose their shape and become brittle. Keep them in water or specialized cleansers and change the water solution daily [source: NIH].
Some other don'ts to consider include the following:
- Don't try to adjust or fix dentures yourself; you can cause permanent and expensive damage.
- Don't use tooth picks or hard dental scrapers. Dentures don't have the sensations of natural teeth and you may poke and damage soft mouth tissues.
- Don't practice eating with scalding hot or icy cold foods and beverages. Getting used to registering hot and cold without natural teeth can be tricky at first.
- Don't bite and pull with tugging motions and avoid using front dentures on hard foods. Small bites and even, up and down motions prevent breakage or wear.
Next we'll look at the do's of cleaning and caring for dentures.
Best Way to Clean Dentures
Toothbrushes and toothpastes are made specifically for cleaning teeth, and teeth are coated with enamel -- the hardest mineral in the human body. Dentures are made mostly from acrylic resin, which may be strong, but not nearly as tough as natural teeth. Abrasives and stiff brushes can scratch and wear down denture materials and they are not typically recommended when caring for denture appliances whether fixed or removable.
Cleaning dentures is similar to cleaning teeth because it should be done at least twice a day. One big difference with removable dentures, though, is that they can be removed after meals and thoroughly rinsed so all food particles are dislodged. Partial removable dentures also should be rinsed during the day and it's important to floss between the natural teeth supporting them. Often plaque builds up around the attachments holding the real and artificial teeth together, as well as on the real and false teeth themselves, and thorough hygiene is important. Soft-lined dentures also require extra care because the materials are more porous and less durable [source: Williamson].
Dentures should be brushed daily with a soft denture-cleaning brush and an ADA-accepted denture cleaner, a plain soap or a liquid dish wash. Mild cleansers keep dental appliances clean without wearing down the surfaces and they gently slough off stains from food and drinks. While brushing with a wet denture brush and cleanser, it's a good idea to keep the appliance above a soft towel rather than a hard sink or counter surface in case it slips out of your hands. Using hot water may damage or warp dentures, so lukewarm water is recommended [sources: NIH; ADA].
As mentioned, you should take your dentures out at night, and soak them in a denture cleaner or soap to keep them moist and help retain their shape. Ultrasonic machines are also an option for soaking dentures but should not replace scrubbing with a brush [source: ADA]. Avoid solutions with chlorine and any cleansers with bleach because they can tarnish metal, as well as whiten the pink areas.
It's also important to rinse the dentures thoroughly after soaking because the solutions can irritate mouth tissues and even make you sick. They are designed for cleaning dentures and not the human mouth so they should never be ingested [sources: Mayo Clinic; FDA].
Clean dentures deserve a clean mouth, too. Next we'll look at the denture support system.
Tips for a Healthy Mouth
In order for partial and whole mouth dentures to fit and stay put, they need a healthy base of gums and muscles. As part of oral hygiene, while your dentures are out of your mouth, you should gently brush and massage your gums, tongue and roof of your mouth to remove bacteria and build up. Stimulating the gums keeps blood flowing and tissues thriving. Brushing and flossing any remaining natural teeth is a part of daily care that's also worth mentioning again here.
Regular dental office checkups are advisable every six months or as directed by a dentist or periodontist. But it's also important to be aware of any changes in how your dentures fit and consult with an expert sooner rather than later if they become too big or small. Although it is common for bones in the jaw to get smaller over time and for some gum tissues to shrink, a poor fit also may indicate gingivitis or other problems that can lead to gum disease or infection [source: Mayo Clinic]. Poor diet can affect the health of bones and muscles -- even in the mouth -- so even eating a healthy diet will go a long way toward supporting denture fit.
Being ready for changes with age or over the lifetime of your dentures can keep you better prepared for the inevitable adjustments and replacements. Even with excellent care and hygiene, many dentures need to be replaced in about five years due to wear and tear, and general changes in the mouth, gums and supporting teeth [source: ACP]. Dentists, hygienists and periodontists can recommend care plans and cleaning techniques tailored to each patient, and they will provide recommendations for the best tools and products.
While having to wear dentures may be beyond our control due to aging or what life throws our way, keeping our mouths healthy to support our smiles is totally up to us.
More information on dentures and a healthy smile follow on the next page.
More Great Links
- Alderman, Lesley. "For Most, Implants Beat Dentures, But At a Price." NewYorkTimes.com. July 30, 2010. (Oct. 14, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/31/health/31patient.html
- American College of Prosthodontists (ACP). "Dentures: How to Properly Apply Denture Adhesive." Prosthodontics.org. 2010. (Oct. 10, 2011) http://www.prosthodontics.org/patients/Dentures.asp
- American Dental Association (ADA). "Bridges." ADA.org. 2011. (Oct. 10, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2954.aspx?currentTab=1
- American Dental Association (ADA). "Dentures." ADA.org. 2011. (Oct. 10, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2996.aspx
- American Dental Association (ADA). "Partial Dentures, Removable." ADA.org. 2011. (Oct. 10, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2722.aspx?currentTab=1
- Bodiesâ€¦The Exhibition. "Edentulous: A Brief History of Dentures." BodiesTheExhibition.com. Jan. 18, 2011. (Oct. 13, 2011) http://www.bodiestheexhibition.com/news/38-edentulous-a-brief-history-of-dentures.html
- Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CUCDM). "Denture Adhesives: Do They Work? Do You Need Them?" SimpleStepsDental.com. Jan. 12, 2009. (Oct. 13, 2011) http://www.simplestepsdental.com/SS/ihtSSPrint/r.WSIHW000/st.31862/t.32532/pr.3/c.308584.html
- Mayo Clinic. "Denture Care: How Do I Clean Dentures?" MayoClinic.com. Dec. 1, 2009. (Oct. 10, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/denture-care/AN02028/METHOD=print
- National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Dentures." NIH.org. 2011. (Oct. 10, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/dentures.html
- National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Denture Problems." NIH.org. 2011. (Oct. 10, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002037.htm
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "Advice for Patients: Denture Cleansers." FDA.gov. June 24, 2009. (Oct. 10, 2011) http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/PatientAlerts/ucm064668.htm
- Williamson, R.T. "Clinical Application of a Soft Denture Liner: A Case Report." NIH.gov. June 1995. (Oct. 14, 2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8602422