Tooth loss is incredibly common in the U.S. Roughly 120 million Americans have lost at least one adult tooth. This leaves behind gaps that can ding confidence and spiral into dental and general health concerns.
When we think about replacing missing teeth, our brains automatically jump to dentures and implants. Dental bridges offer a third option that blends the benefits of each while avoiding their biggest drawbacks. To help you navigate this big decision, here’s an in-depth primer on dental bridges.
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What Are Dental Bridges?
Dental bridges are fixed appliances used when a patient is missing one or more teeth. They get their name from their design — they literally bridge gaps in your smile. While there are different types of dental bridges, each with their unique designs, they usually include two crowns (abutments) — one on each side of the gap — plus a false tooth pontic (the “bridge”).
Bridges can be made of a variety of materials, but in most cases, they use dental resin and porcelain to help them blend in with the natural teeth. Besides creating the look of a beautiful smile, they also restore the bite and balance facial features, restoring the shape lost from sagging at the gaps.
Types of Dental Bridges
Not all dental bridges are the same. The right type for you will depend on the number and locations of your missing teeth. Bridge types vary by design and material, and you’ll need your dentist’s help to figure out which is correct for your smile. Below are five types your dentist might offer.
Traditional Fixed Bridges
When people mention dental bridges, this is typically what they’re talking about. The dentist shaves down two teeth on either side of the gap, then caps them with crowns, which support the abutment containing the false tooth or teeth. Depending on the materials, this type of bridge can replace up to four missing teeth. Traditional fixed bridges evenly distribute bite force and can help restore chewing and speech function.
Sometimes, there just isn’t the option of having two abutments, either because the tooth that would function as the support is missing or because the shape of the mouth/alignment doesn’t permit it. The dentist preps and caps a single anchor capped, which supports the pontic. Cantilever bridges are typically used on the front teeth since they don’t stand up well to powerful bite forces.
The Maryland bridge is a conservative take on the traditional dental bridge. They combine plastic teeth with a resin that mimics the gums and receives support from a metal frame. The metal attachments are bonded to the anchor teeth, so they don’t require the same enamel removal as caps do. This makes them more affordable and, in some ways, less damaging to the natural teeth but also more vulnerable to breakage.
Composite Bridge (Ribbond)
Dentists typically use composite bridges as a temporary solution, making and installing them in a single visit. They use composite bonding material to build a false tooth and add a reinforced wire to give it strength. It can replace up to two missing teeth at a time, but is vulnerable to chipping and breaking.
Also called implant-supported dentures, this is a good solution when you have too many teeth missing in a row to use less-invasive options. For this type of bridge, the dentist adds implants (2–6 in most cases, depending on what you need) and then attaches a laboratory-fabricated bridge. This bridge is removable, but only by a dentist in their office.
Pros and Cons of Dental Bridges
There is a lot to love about dental bridges, from the relative simplicity of placement (in most cases) to their costs. But like any other dental treatment, they aren’t perfect. To help you navigate your decision, below are some of the most notable pros and cons of dental bridges.
- Smile Restoration: Bridges visually restore the smile, standing in for missing teeth by presenting highly realistic false ones in their place (though the level of realism varies by material).
- Balanced Facial Features: The cheeks and lips tend to sag where teeth are missing. Bridges fill the gaps, restoring balance by positioning these features where they’re meant to be.
- Better Chewing and Speaking: Missing teeth affect your ability to chew or speak properly. This has wide-ranging consequences, from digestive problems to a loss of confidence. Bridges correct these issues and improve your quality of life.
- Distribution of Bite Force: Intact, well-aligned smiles share the burden of bite force. When teeth are missing, the remaining ones pick up the slack. Dental bridges help distribute that force evenly.
- Alignment: The teeth naturally migrate to fill in gaps, throwing off the entire bite and causing issues with the jaw joints. Bridges fill the gaps and force the other teeth to stay where they are.
- Enamel Removal: With traditional and cantilever bridges, your dentist has to remove enamel from the supporting teeth to accommodate the caps. This leaves them permanently altered, so even if you stop using a bridge later, you will need crowns forever.
- Tooth Wear: Maryland and composite bridges both contain metal that might wear down and damage the teeth.
- Longevity: Most dental bridges last just 5–10 years. While proper care can extend their lifespan, and on-the-spot repairs can buy you a few extra years in some cases, they are not a very long-lasting solution.
- Bone Loss: When you lose teeth, the jawbone starts to thin. While dental implants stimulate the bone and help stop bone loss, bridges just sit on top of the gumline.
How Much Do Dental Bridges Cost?
There is no set cost for dental bridges. In fact, you can get quotes from two dentists for the same type of bridge and identical level of prep and find that there are hundreds of dollars in difference between them. You might find that your dental bridge costs just a few hundred dollars for a temporary composite bridge or as much as $40,000, perhaps more, for an implant supported bridge.
So, what are the typical costs for dental bridges? Below are average ranges for different types, but your cost may fall outside these ranges:
- Traditional Fixed Bridges: $1,500–$5,000
- Cantilever Bridges: $2,000–$5,000
- Maryland Bridges: $1,000–$2,500
- Implant-Supported Bridges: $5,000–$15,000 for a small bridge with two implants; $20,000–$26,000 for all-on-4 replacing most of the teeth in an arch; $30,000–$36,000 for all-on-6 replacing most or all of the teeth in an arch
The price you may pay is determined by many variables, including how many teeth are missing, the materials used, the complexity of placement, the lab your dentist works with, and your dentist’s fees. Keep in mind that these prices are not necessarily all-inclusive; the initial consultation, diagnostics, and prep are all separate costs that can add thousands to your total.
If you have a dental policy, your insurance company might cover a portion of the cost — usually 50% or less. You can also apply HSA and FSA funds to dental bridges. Still, even after insurance and savings account funds, you’ll still probably have to pay hundreds out of pocket. Talk to your dentist about their payment plans and other financing options if you cannot afford treatment outright.
What Is It Like to Get Dental Bridges?
What should you expect when getting a dental bridge? It varies based on bridge type, your needs, and your doctor’s approach. Most of the time, it follows the standard playbook. Below are the basic steps most patients encounter when getting a dental bridge.
Initial Exam and Planning
Every dental bridge starts with a thorough exam checking the state of your teeth, gums, and bones. The goal is to ensure that your teeth and gums are healthy enough to support a bridge and that there aren’t any severe underlying conditions, like significant bone loss. This appointment usually includes a visual exam, X-rays, and a 3D scan.
If your dentist thinks you’re a good candidate for a dental bridge, they’ll walk you through your options to select the right type for your needs. Then, they’ll work with you to select a color and size that matches your goals.
Extractions and Other Prep
Bridges fill the gaps left by missing teeth, but you don’t need to wait until you lose a tooth to start the process. If you have a decaying or recently damaged tooth and know it can’t be saved, you can start planning your bridge, then get the tooth removed. Sometimes, you’ll need other prep as well. For example, if you lost your tooth years ago, your other teeth might have shifted, requiring orthodontics before you can get your bridge.
Assuming you will have abutment teeth as part of your bridge structure, they will need to have some enamel removed to make room for the caps. The amount is up to your dentist, and they’ll apply a topical numbing agent or local anesthetic before the procedure.
Since the abutment teeth will be vulnerable after enamel removal, your dentist will make a temporary bridge. It won’t be very strong, so you’ll need to exercise caution when eating. You’ll get it removed once the permanent bridge is ready.
Once the laboratory has the permanent bridge ready, they’ll send it to your dentist, who will call you to schedule an appointment. During this office visit, your dentist will remove the temporary bridge and fix the permanent one in place. They can also make small alterations to fine-tune the look and fit.
What Is It Like to Have Dental Bridges Over Time?
Part of what makes dental bridges an appealing solution to missing teeth is that they don’t require a lot of special attention. Once they’re in place, you don’t treat them much differently from your actual teeth, except when cleaning them. Still, you should keep a few things in mind to better adjust to your bridge and to extend its lifespan.
Right after getting your bridge, it’s normal to experience tenderness and sensitivity. Depending on the prep your teeth needed and if you already had sensitive teeth, you might even experience some pain.
Either way, it shouldn’t last more than a few days. You can use over-the-counter pain relievers and saltwater rinses to help relieve it. But if those aren’t working, reach out to your dentist.
The Adjustment Period
If you’ve ever had dental work, braces, or aligners in the past, you already know about the adjustment period. If you haven’t, this is the brief period during which your tongue and other tissues have to get used to the changes treatment or appliances bring.
You’ll likely experience changes in the way you chew and speak, depending on where your bridge is located. And if you’ve been missing teeth for a while, you might even accidentally bite your cheeks or tongue. Expect to get through this phase in about 1–3 weeks.
With most bridges, you can eat pretty much the same diet as you did before, just avoiding overly hard or sticky foods. If your bridge is implant supported, you will have a more restrictive healing period, but this passes within six months for most people. Be sure to follow your doctor’s guidelines, though, since some bridges are more delicate and require special attention at mealtimes.
While there are many causes of tooth loss, for many people, a lack of proper dental hygiene plays a role. Once you have a dental bridge, put the days of being lax with your oral care routine behind you. Regressing in your oral hygiene can cause gum disease, bone loss, and further tooth loss, rendering your bridge ineffective. Below are the steps you need to take as part of your hygiene routine after getting a dental bridge.
- Brush your teeth twice a day using a soft-bristled brush. Take extra care around the gumline, but be gentle; aggressive brushing can cause gum recession. Whitening toothpaste can damage bridges, as can those with lots of “grit,” so look for mild options.
- Floss at least once a day. You should floss between all teeth, but it is especially important to floss around those that support the bridge. If they start to decay, you will lose your bridge as well.
- Clean underneath the dental bridge every day when you floss. You can use floss threaders to get under the bridge or get a water pick.
- Keep up with your routine dental appointments. Regular cleanings and exams are always important. However, if you have an appliance or restorative dentistry, they are even more essential.
Watch for Problems
In most cases, dental bridges are easy to care for, and you don’t need to worry about problems until they reach the end of their lifespan. Still, you should keep an eye out for signs that something isn’t quite right. These include:
- Cracks in the abutments or pontic
- Uneven wear on the bridge or other teeth
- Changes in how your bite comes together
- Red or swollen gums
- Bleeding when brushing
- Chronic bad breath
Alternative Treatment Options
While bridges are a solid option for replacing missing teeth, they aren’t the only one. Dentures, dental implants, and snap-on veneers are also worth considering.
Dentures are the classic option and, depending on the route you take, they could be more affordable than a bridge. They’re removable, so they are easier to clean around, too. The downside is that they aren’t as stable, and as your anatomy changes, they can slip out of place at inconvenient moments.
Dental implants are more secure than dentures or bridges, functioning like natural teeth. If you just need to cover one or two gaps, they could be a good alternative, but keep in mind that they can cost thousands of dollars more than a simple dental bridge.
Snap-on veneers are removable appliances that cover not just gaps, but most or all of the teeth in an arch, hiding gaps, discoloration, chips, spacing, and more. In most cases, they’ll be the most affordable way to deal with missing teeth and don’t require more care than dentures.
Snap-on veneers aren’t perfect. First, they aren’t replacing the function of natural teeth; if speech is your concern, they’ll help, but they won’t help you chew better or prevent tooth shifts. Second, they are more delicate than other options. Many aren’t meant for daily wear and the typical lifespan is one year. If you need an in-the-moment solution while you save up for other options, though, they’re a great way to get by until you’re ready.
Dental bridges are an excellent approach to replacing missing teeth, and they remain popular decades after they went mainstream thanks to their effectiveness and relative affordability.
While there are several alternatives, the same balance of function, aesthetics, convenience, and price will always attract new patients. Still, that doesn’t mean dental bridges are the best treatment in every case; work with your dentist to determine which solutions are ideal for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will a dental bridge change the way I speak?
It can, but this is typically a good thing. If you are missing any of your front teeth, it probably affects your speech. Getting a dental bridge gives the tongue something to form sounds with, restoring your natural speech pattern.
Do dental bridges require dietary changes?
Yes, though they aren’t any more restrictive than other restorative dentistry procedures — unless you have a temporary bridge, which are more delicate. Overly hard and sticky foods can damage the bridge, so you’ll want to avoid them.
How long will my dental bridge last?
There is no set lifespan for dental bridges. In most cases, they last somewhere between 5 and 10 years, depending on the type and the level of care you give your bridge, teeth, and gums.
What type of dental bridge should I get?
This isn’t something a stranger can answer for you; only a dentist can determine this and they’ll need to see you in person.
Can bridges be used with dental implants?
Yes, implant-supported bridges are a great option when you have large gaps or have lost most or all of the teeth in an arch. The bridge securely attaches to the root, then the abutment and crown hold it in place. This bridge is just as fixed in place as a traditional one as far as you’re concerned; only a dentist can remove it.
How do I decide between partial dentures, snap-on veneers, and bridges?
If all of them are equally viable options for you, it’s about determining the pros and cons of each and figuring out which best aligns with your budget and goals.
What if my dental insurance doesn’t cover bridges?
Most dental offices will offer some form of financing. If they don’t, you can look into third-party financiers like CareCredit.
Do dental bridges require enamel removal?
It depends on the type of bridge. Traditional fixed bridges and cantilever bridges do.
Can people tell I have a dental bridge?
As long as it’s well made, people should not be able to distinguish between your bridge and your natural teeth.
Should I get my bridge from a general or cosmetic dentist?
Both should give you excellent results, but if your goal is to get the most aesthetically pleasing smile possible, go with a cosmetic dentist. They’ll make sure your bridge perfectly complements your other teeth and overall facial features while also offering other treatments that can enhance your smile’s appearance.
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