A new center for tooth transplantation at the University of North Carolina has inspired excitement about the prospects of this approach to replacing missing teeth.
However exciting this approach might seem, it is likely only good for limited cases and will never be a replacement for dental implants.
What Is Tooth Transplantation?
Tooth transplantation is when a dentist takes a tooth from one part of your mouth and puts it in another part of your mouth (usually where you’ve lost a tooth). Most often, the donor tooth is a third molar (wisdom tooth). It’s most often used to replace the first molar, which might have been lost to decay, trauma, or gum disease.
Benefits of Tooth Transplantation
The procedure is very successful, with initial success rates over 90%, and sometimes as high as 99% in clinical studies. It can achieve long-term success measured in decades.
There’s no risk of rejection for the tooth, because it already belongs to the recipient.
This procedure works well for teens and young adults who might not be candidates for dental implants because their jaws haven’t finished growing. Unlike dental implants, transplanted teeth can move with a growing jaw to maintain proper placement.
The transplanted tooth also has the other benefits that natural teeth have over dental implants. The tooth has a nerve, which allows it to respond to pressure, which can help with chewing so you don’t bite down too hard. And the flexibility of the natural tooth lets it deform under pressure, which helps it to avoid chipping and cracking.
Since most people have wisdom teeth removed anyway, this is a good way to utilize a tooth that might otherwise just be thrown away.
And, of course, the transplanted tooth looks natural, because it is natural.
Limitations of Tooth Transplantation
However, in addition to its benefits, tooth transplantation has some limitations. First, there are limited donor teeth available in the human mouth–no more than four! So people will only be able to get a few teeth replaced this way.
And, because the teeth are all molars, they are appropriate in only a small number of situations. They can be used to replace other types of teeth, but they would look unattractive and defeat the purpose of transplantation.
Finally, the timing has to be perfect for tooth transplantation. A tooth is only an appropriate donor tooth when it is about one-half to two-thirds completely developed. That’s not a huge window of time.
Dental Implants Are Already a Great Solution
Giving the limitations of tooth transplantation, it’s hard to imagine that it will ever be a replacement for dental implants. Instead, it’s a technique that can sometimes be used to help people in that time when dental implants are not a good choice because a person’s jaw is still growing.
At other times, dental implants are a better choice because they are just as successful, can look just as attractive, and can last just as long as a transplanted tooth (if not longer).