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How should dental partials fit in the mouth?

A fixed partial prosthesis being prepared for installation.
A fixed partial prosthesis being prepared for installation.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

As we age, many of us begin to lose our natural teeth. Sixty-nine percent of Americans ages 35 to 44 have lost at least one of their permanent teeth, and by the age of 74, 26 percent have lost all of their permanent teeth [source: American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons]. Whether it's because of gum disease, tooth decay or an accident, there are no guarantees you'll reach the pearly gates with your pearly whites.

Tooth loss, including missing or broken teeth, can lead to big problems if left untreated. In addition to cosmetic concerns, missing teeth may cause other teeth to shift, may cause muscle stress and pain, facial muscle loosening (making your face look saggy) and also may cause jaw bone and jaw joint problems (temporomandibular disorders, or TMD). And missing even just a single tooth may accelerate the loss of more teeth.

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Dentures, or artificial teeth, are a common way to solve the problem. There are two basic types of dentures, complete and partial. Complete dentures are used when there are no natural teeth remaining -- these are a complete set of artificial teeth. Dental partials are used when one or some teeth are missing but there are still natural permanent teeth in your mouth.

A dental partial is a prosthesis a dentist or prosthodontist (a dentist who specializes in teeth restoration and replacement) makes to replace one or more missing teeth. It is a dental appliance custom fit to prevent your remaining teeth from shifting, to improve chewing and speech, and to restore your healthy smile. A dental partial is similar to a dental bridge, and can be removable or fixed.

Next, let's look into how dentists are able to custom fit dental partials to your individual needs, as well as what you should expect from the appliance's look and feel.

Dental partials involve two basic parts: There are artificial teeth and gums, and there's a framework in your mouth to support those artificial teeth and gums. Artificial teeth and gums are commonly molded from porcelain or acrylic resin. There are a few types of support systems. The most common type relies on clasps that attach the partial to neighboring teeth, and this framework may be made of hard metal alloy, acrylic or a combination of the two. For people looking for the most cosmetically advanced dental partial, there are semi-precision and precision partials that use a framework of interlocking components rather than metal clasps. This type of support system is typically formed from semi-rigid metal, nylon material or a combination of both, and because it doesn't rely on clasps, it offers the most natural look.

To get the proper fit for your mouth and specific tooth replacement needs, your dentist will schedule a series of appointments to complete the process, usually spread out over about a month. To begin, you'll undergo a complete oral exam to check for decay, gum disease and other oral health problems that should be addressed before your appliance fitting.

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Your dentist will then make a set of impressions, which are a model of your teeth and gums, as well as a bite registration, which is a model of how your upper and lower teeth fit together when you bite down. Your dental partial will be formed based on these impressions and your bite registration to guarantee the best fit for your mouth. Depending on the health and shape of the teeth neighboring your missing tooth (or teeth), your dentist may decide to crown or reshape those neighboring teeth to ensure the best fit for the framework of the partial. Models of your dental partial will be made to adjust for fit, feel, color and shape, as well as bite and jaw alignment, before the final customized prosthetic is created.

While it may take a few days to weeks for your new teeth to feel natural in your mouth, there's a difference between getting used to your partial and an ill-fitting partial. While your new teeth may feel bulky at first, after the first few weeks, a well-fitted dental partial will feel no different from your natural teeth. It's important your dental partial fits properly, not only to ensure that it looks and feels comfortable inside your mouth, but also to decrease the chance it may slip, make sounds when you speak or eat, or cause sore spots and rubbing. A dental partial that doesn't fit may cause damage to your natural teeth, your gums and your jawbone.

Dental partials should last anywhere from 7 to 15 years, but during that time your partial will need to be adjusted and refit to accommodate changes such as shrinkage in your gums and jawbone.

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Sources

  • American Academy of Periodontology. "Dental Implants: Replacement Teeth That Look and Feel Like Your Own." (Oct. 7. 2011) http://www.perio.org/consumer/2m.htm
  • American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. "Dental Implants." (Oct. 7, 2011) http://www.aaoms.org/dental_implants.php
  • American College of Prosthodontists. "Prosthodontic Procedures - Bridges,Crowns, Dentures, Dental Implants and More." (Oct. 7, 2011) http://www.prosthodontics.org/patients/procedures.asp
  • American Dental Association. "Bridges." (Oct. 7, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2599.aspx
  • American Dental Association. "Partial Dentures, Removable." (Oct. 7, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2722.aspx
  • Forest View Dental. "Removable Partial Dentures." (Oct. 7, 2011) http://www.forestviewdental.com/fvd_education/conventional%20removable%20partial%20dentures.pdf
  • Hoard Dentistry Cosmetic and Restorative Dentistry. "Partials." (Oct. 7, 2011) http://www.newbernsmiles.com/Partials.html
  • MedicineNet.com. "Dental Health: Dentures." (Oct. 7, 2011) http://www.medicinenet.com/dentures/article.htm
  • Shugars, Daniel A.; Bader, James D.; Phillips, S. Warren Jr.; White, B. Alexander; and C. Frank Brantley. "The Consequences of Not Replacing a Missing Posterior Tooth." The Journal of the American Dental Association. Vol. 131, no. 9. Pages 1317-1323. 2000. (Oct. 7, 2011) http://jada.ada.org/content/131/9/1317.full
  • The Manhattan Dentist. "Removable Bridges and Partial Dentures." (Oct. 7, 2011) http://www.manhattannydentist.com/partial-dental-bridges.htm

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