Are Teeth Disposable?

July 2008

By: Dr. Scott R. Harden

Technology! We are living in modern times that create astounding privileges for all of us. Children and adults alike both borrow from wonderful new advancements that are apart of our every day lives. In only the last two generations there have been tremendous break-throughs that we have quickly adopted as routine and become very dependant upon. Adults can reflect on the past and appreciate the conveniences associated with these inventions while children accept them as the way it has always been. No longer are the days of locking your keys in the car with the invention of remote car key locks. No more do we hear the repeated echo of “are we there yet” with the invention of DVD players in our vehicles or Game Boys in the hands of children born to our now very mobile society. Instant communication any where any time has evolved with our borderline obsessive use of cell phones, which has itself given rise to texting making the sound of our voices more antiquated. Who’d a thunk it?

The basis of rapid development in technology is owed to computerization, the invention of plastics that now dominates society and inexpensive labor on the world stage. These factors not only promote fast technological improvements, but promote designed obsolescence as well, permitting all our novelty gadgetry, to be for all practical purposes, disposable. The brick of a cell phone from a decade ago has seen at least 20 upgraded models and cell phones are now more compact, fancier and far more powerful than ever before. Where are those old phones we had? In the garbage they are, as Yoda from Star Wars would tell us. How about computers? The average computer lasts 3-5 years depending on our tolerance level and whether or not you are into computer games and need the latest, fastest model. Since my first computer purchase in 1988, I have upgraded my computer over six times and further increased the number of computers I own as well. Where are those old computers? The average person purchases a new car about every seven years. There are PDA’s, GPS’s, and lots of alphabet soup that rules our lives more than we would like to admit, and are readily replaced.

We live in an ultra-modern society that is further observed in our healthcare delivery system. Patients are now living longer and experience better quality lives due to such advancements as kidney transplants, which my sister-in-law experienced just last year, as opposed to being treated by an iron lung machine that epitomized primitive technology years ago. Replacement of technology in our personal lives is being mirrored in the medical field by replacement of our organs — kidneys, heart, liver, skin, eyes, hair – all are now replaceable. These amazing surgical innovations have become commonplace and household words, and were unthinkable achievements not too long ago.

Following in the same direction of technological products, and medical healthcare advancements, dentistry has challenged us with a philosophical question that is currently scrutinized closely by dentists. Are teeth disposable? If it’s good enough for a heart, it must be okay for a tooth. With the technological advancement of dental implants, teeth requiring extraction have been being readily replaced for decades. How about a tooth that normally could be saved by historical standards of a root canal and crown procedure? By the time you add up the time and cost, the concept of simply extracting the tooth and replacing it with an implant and crown is being offered as a very viable alternative. Hence, disposable teeth.

It is the opinion of this author that numerous factors must be considered before we make this decision to readily. First, root canal procedures are now painless and predictable, unlike the past. A root canal procedure is performed inside the tooth and therefore is a contained procedure, and much easier to tolerate, as opposed to the placement of a dental implant, which still remains a surgical procedure. Financially, the cost of extraction, implant, abutment (attached on top of the implant to anchor a crown) and the crown is somewhat more expensive as compared directly to keeping the tooth by performing a root canal procedure, post and core (to structure the top of the tooth to support the crown) and the crown. One must consider that an implant and crown will last indefinitely impervious to bacteria versus the restored natural tooth that is still susceptible to bacteria and may require re-treatment in several decades or less. The cost difference is still in favor of restoring natural teeth and insurance companies further maintain traditional standards providing coverage for restoring a natural tooth while denying benefits of dental implant technology. One can only foresee dental implants becoming more affordable in the future and insurance companies ultimately endorsing dental implants more readily. This will tip the scale toward dental implants and affect our likelihood of adopting the concept of “disposable teeth” in years to come.