There are many concerns implant dentists have about dental implants that most people don’t worry about very much. One of these is that the use of dental implants may lead to an epidemic of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). That’s because dental implants aren’t cushioned the same way your natural teeth are. But although there is potential for problems, the tuatara teaches us that the body can also learn to work with teeth that aren’t cushioned.
Bite Soft: How Your Teeth Are Cushioned
It’s an important distinction we’ve talked about before: your natural teeth are cushioned, but dental implants are hard. Your natural teeth aren’t anchored directly in your bones. Instead, they are bonded to your teeth using ligaments. These ligaments are stretchy, which helps cushion your teeth. But dental implants are bonded directly to bones so that force is delivered from the tooth to the bone.
And your natural teeth are flexible. The outer shell of enamel is hard, but inside the tooth is soft and squishy, and the hard shell is designed to crack slightly so it can flex. Dental implants are hard: an advanced ceramic crown atop a titanium core.
Some dentists are concerned that without the effect of these cushions, dental implants might lead to TMJ because the force of biting and chewing will be transferred more directly as jolts to the temporomandibular joint.
Lessons from a Lizard: Dental Implants Will Work Fine
But it’s important to remember that not all animals have the same tooth and jaw system that we have. In fact, there’s at least one that has a system very similar to dental implants. One of New Zealand’s living fossils, the tuatara, is a primitive lizard-like reptile that has teeth that are anchored in the jawbone the way that dental implants are. There is no give or cushion there.
And there’s something else important about the tuatara. While most reptiles don’t chew their food, preferring to swallow it whole, the tuatara is a little different. It actually has a complicated chewing mechanism that is remarkably advanced for such a primitive animal.
And when the tuatara bites down, it knows not to bite too hard. It doesn’t consciously control how hard it bites down, it has feedback mechanisms that help regulate the bite forces. We have similar feedback mechanisms, and, based on studies of the tuatara, scientists believe these mechanisms will work just fine to help protect the temporomandibular joint, even with dental implants.
Which is not to say that there is no risk. An improperly fitted and poorly placed dental implant can contribute to TMJ the same way a dental crown could. It’s important to choose your implant dentist carefully to make sure they have the qualifications to help you avoid TMJ or other consequences of poorly designed restorations.