Because we live longer and more stressful lives today, we are exposing our teeth to many more years of potentially damaging habits such as clenching, grinding, and chewing on hard objects. These habits make our teeth more susceptible to cracks.
Cracked teeth do not always show any visible signs of damage, but may present a variety of symptoms, including erratic pain when you chew with them, and pain or sensitivity to heat and cold. In many cases, the pain may come and go, making it difficult for your doctor to locate the source.
Why Cracked Teeth Hurt
When the outer hard tissues of the tooth are cracked, chewing can cause movement of the pieces, and the pulp becomes irritated. When biting pressure is released, the crack can close quickly, resulting in a momentary, sharp pain. Irritation of the dental pulp can be repeated many times by chewing.
Eventually, the pulp will become damaged to the point where it can no longer heal itself. The tooth will not only hurt during chewing but may also become sensitive to extreme temperatures. In time, a cracked tooth may begin to hurt all by itself. Extensive cracks will lead to infection of the pulp tissue, even spreading to the bone and gum tissue that surround the tooth.
Craze lines are tiny cracks that affect only the outer enamel. These cracks are extremely common in adult teeth. Craze lines are very shallow, cause no pain, and are of no concern beyond appearance.
When a cusp (the pointed part of the chewing surface) becomes weakened, a fracture sometimes results. The weakened cusp may break off by itself or have to be removed by your dentist. When this happens, the pain will usually be relieved. A fractured cusp rarely damages the pulp, so root canal treatment is seldom needed. Your tooth will usually be restored with a full crown by your dentist.
A split tooth is often the result of long-term progression of a cracked tooth. The split tooth is identified by a crack with distinct segments that can be separated. A split tooth cannot be saved intact. The position and extent of the crack, however, will determine whether a part of the tooth can be saved. In rare instances, endodontic treatment and a crown or other restoration by your dentist may be used to save a portion of the tooth.
Vertical Root Fracture
Vertical root fractures are cracks that begin in the root of the tooth and extend toward the chewing surface. They often show minimal signs and symptoms and may therefore go unnoticed until the surrounding bone and gum become infected. Treatment may entail extraction of the tooth.
Preventing Cracked Teeth
While cracked teeth are not completely preventable, you can take some steps to make your teeth less susceptible to cracks.
- Don't chew on hard objects such as ice, unpopped popcorn kernels, or pens.
- Don't clench or grind your teeth during the day. If you are grinding at night without knowing, ask your dentist about a nightguard.
- Wear a mouthguard or protective mask when playing contact sports.
Early diagnosis is important. Even with high magnification and special lighting, it can be challenging to determine the extent of a crack. Your dentist may suggest anything from a simple bonded filling for shallow cracks to a root canal, crown or even extraction for the most severe cases. A cracked tooth that is not treated will progressively worsen, and eventually result in the loss of the tooth. Therefore it is best to see your dentist as soon as the symptoms start.