The vast majority of adult Americans — more than 90% — have had at least one cavity. Even if your tooth health track record remains unblemished, you almost certainly know someone with this extremely common type of dental damage.
Cavities are just the beginning. Tooth damage has plenty of less common but no less serious causes too, from facial trauma to chewing mishaps to involuntary behaviors like grinding and clenching.
What Is Dental Damage?
Before getting into the specific causes of dental damage, let’s review what we really mean when we talk about it.
The term “dental damage” — or “tooth damage” — may describe incidents that cause:
- Chipping or cracking of the teeth
- Loosening of the teeth
- Tooth loss
- Damage to dental nerves and/or blood supply, also known as “dead teeth”
Sometimes, dental damage is obvious. If you sustain a strong blow to the face and spit out your front teeth, there’s no mystery about what happened. You’ll likely seek medical attention right away.
But in many cases, dental damage can take weeks, months, or even years to become apparent. Signs of potential tooth damage include:
- Unexplained tooth pain or sensitivity
- Tooth pain or sensitivity when eating or drinking
- Discoloration of the tooth
- Superficial tooth chips that become more serious over time
- Weakening or loosening of adult teeth
Whether it happens suddenly or over time, dental damage can be distressing. Fortunately, it’s often possible to stabilize, treat, and/or repair dental damage — stabilizing the cause of the issue and removing any outward indication that it occurred in the first place.
Depending on the circumstance, dental damage treatments can include:
- Fillings or seals for cavities
- Caps for chipped teeth
- Crowns for more seriously damaged teeth
- Custom dental implants for one or more missing or failing teeth
If you’re concerned about your own oral health, review the common causes of tooth damage, then speak with your dentist for help deciding what to do next.
Common Causes of Tooth Damage
These are some of the most common causes of tooth damage. Some occur all at once, while others take a long time to develop.
Getting Hit in the Face
Let’s hope this isn’t a daily worry for you, but unfortunately, direct facial trauma is more common than we’d like it to be. You’re at higher risk for sustaining a heavy blow to the face if you participate in activities like:
- Contact sports like hockey and football
- Bat-and-ball sports like baseball
- High-risk occupations like landscaping and construction
Slip and Fall Injuries
We all take spills from time to time. It’s not necessarily a sign of clumsiness or distractedness.
It is often a cause of traumatic dental damage, however. Depending on the circumstances, slips and falls can cause anything from minor tooth damage (chips and cracks) to issues that require immediate attention (broken or dislodged teeth).
Serious road accidents can cause tooth damage as well. As with blows to the face and slips and falls, the mechanism is usually facial trauma. Airbags reduce the risk of accident-related tooth damage but can’t eliminate it entirely.
Eating Hard or Sharp Foods
No matter how careful you are, you’ve probably sustained a (hopefully minor) mouth injury or two at mealtimes. In healthy patients, diet-related gum and soft tissue injuries tend to heal on their own, but tooth injuries are another matter — especially in folks who haven’t always practiced perfect oral hygiene.
Chewing on Hard or Rubbery Objects
Chewing on hard or rubbery nonfood objects can cause acute or gradual tooth damage too. Pencils and pens, erasers, eyeglass frames — nothing (nontoxic) is off limits.
Jaw Clenching and Grinding of the Teeth
These involuntary behaviors often occur when we’re asleep or during periods of intense concentration. Over time, they wear down teeth, and they can cause acute injuries too. They may also contribute to other oral health issues, such as receding gums.
“Tooth-Unhealthy” Eating Habits
These gradual causes of tooth damage — cavities that, if left untreated, can result in tooth failure or loss — are even more common than acute diet-related injuries. Too many sugary foods and drinks, eating before bedtime — these behaviors add up over time.
Especially if you’re not brushing and flossing often enough.
Protect That Smile
No matter how careful we are to avoid facial trauma nor how diligently we care for our teeth, most of us experience dental damage as we age.
The good news is that dental medicine has come a long way from the bad old days, when even minor tooth damage often meant getting the affected teeth pulled and solutions like ill-fitting wooden dentures could be worse than the problem itself. Part of the reason it has improved so drastically, is because of the schooling dentistry requires. This comes at a cost, and student loans for dentists can rack up very quickly. While they provide a good return on investment, dentists are in high demand, so if you have thought this may be a career you are interested in, do your homework on the costs and requirements. Above all else, getting a quality education is the most important part of becoming a dentist.
Minimizing your exposure to these common causes of dental damage is the surest way to protect your smile as you get older. But know that dental damage isn’t the end of the world — and that durable solutions like custom dental implants can help restore your confidence when life happens.