Oral and pharyngeal cancer affects 49,750 people in the United States. Depending on the severity of the disease, the person's oral health, and other factors, patients may lose teeth prior to or during the process of eliminating the cancer.
Many people who go through this experience may want to get dental implants to replace the missing teeth. Unfortunately, this may not be an option if you were treated using radiation therapy. Here's more information about this issue and possible alternative solutions for restoring your smile
Radiation Damages Bone's Healing Ability
Most people don't know this, but the teeth and jaw bone contain micro blood vessels that help ferry nutrients and oxygen to them, two things required to keep them healthy and strong. When these blood vessels are damaged, the area they were in eventually weakens and deteriorates (or dies in the case of teeth). Although radiation is fairly effective at getting rid of cancer, it often destroys some these blood vessels. As a result, oral structures like the jawbone have a harder time repairing themselves.
This affects your ability to get dental implants in two ways. First, it may increase your risk of implant failure. Successful installation of dental implants depends on the jawbone's ability to remodel itself and grow around the implant, securing it in place. Your jaw may have a more difficult time doing this if it not getting an adequate supply of blood to the implant site.
Second, patients who have had radiation therapy to treat cancer have an increased risk of developing osteoradionecrosis, which is a severe infection resulting from trauma. If nutrients and oxygen can't get to the jaw bone after dental implant surgery, neither can white blood cells that help battle bacteria and other infectious agents. If osteoradionecrosis sets in, not only would the implant have to be removed, that portion of your jaw bone may need to as well if the infection can't be adequately treated.
The damage caused by radiation to the bones is typically permanent, so the previously outlined problems will persist for the rest of your life. If you want to get dental implants, it's important to tell your dentist about any prior radiation therapy you've had. He or she will usually have you consult with a radiation oncologist to determine whether it's safe for you to undergo the procedure.
Alternative Options for Replacing Teeth
If dental implants are inadvisable for you because of the damage to your jaw bone, there are other ways you can replace your teeth. Full or partial bridges are always an option, depending on the number of teeth you are missing.
These dental appliances are typically supported by surrounding teeth using wires, resin, or crowns. They are easier to install and the risk of damage to the mouth is less. They also tend to be cheaper than implants. However, they also have disadvantages, including the increased risk of losing the supporting teeth and interference with speech.
Another option for replacing missing teeth is to get subperiosteal implants. Instead of being drilled into the jawbone, these implants are attached to a wire frame, which is then placed on top of the jawbone but under the gum tissue. The weight of the gums helps secure the frame in place. There's no damage to the jawbone and healing times are typically reduced.
Be aware, though, that subperiosteal implants can move around if they are not secured properly, leading to pain and other problems. Additionally, this type of implant can cost up to $20,000 to place.
There may be other solutions to getting dental implants if you were previously treated with radiation. Contact a cosmetic dentist for more information about your options.