Can you see cracks or fracture lines in your teeth? Do you have a cracked tooth?
Just like cracks in your car windshield, hairline cracks in your teeth are not emergencies, but they’re also not a good thing. Just like those windshield cracks, tooth cracks don’t look great and they spread with time and stress, weakening the tooth structure. Because it’s impossible to predict how cracks will spread, it’s impossible to know when or how a tooth will break when the crack gets deep enough. We treat hairline cracks in our teeth for the same reason that we repair or replace cracked windshields – to prevent an unpleasant emergency.
Doing detective work
Step 1: Figure out why it cracked
Going back to our windshield analogy, healthy windshields don’t just crack on their own. They have to get hit hard or stressed repeatedly. Your teeth are the same way. We have to answer the question: what’s hitting or stressing your teeth to cause them to crack? To answer these questions, your dentist will need to perform a bite analysis that looks at how your teeth distribute the force of chewing, as well as how your lifestyle and habits are affecting your teeth. This step is crucial because teeth can crack because of an unbalanced bite, because of unhealthy habits, or because they’re in the wrong place and need straightening. If you simply fix the crack but don’t fix the underlying cause, hairline cracks are going to keep happening both to teeth and to crowns.
Step 2: Fix the root cause
If cracks are being caused by an unbalanced bite, then balancing your bite is your next step. This process can be as minor as reshaping teeth that throw off the bite to something as major as orthodontics or restorative therapies. Some dentists go so far as to claim that you have to put a crown or veneer on every tooth in order to balance your bite, but this approach can be extreme: both extremely expensive and extremely unnecessary.
Step 3: Fix the crack
After you’ve figured out why your tooth is cracked and have dealt with any root causes, it’s time to fix the crack and protect your tooth from further damage, sensitivity & toothaches. To fix a crack, you need to reinforce the tooth with a restoration like a crown or onlay that wraps around the tooth, holding the cracked tooth section(s) together and supporting the tooth structure in function. To envision how this works, envision a crown (or onlay) as a super heavy duty phone case protecting a smartphone.
Since we started out with the windshield analogy, maybe you’re wondering why we have to wrap cracked teeth in crowns and can’t simply seal cracks like we seal windshields. We can’t seal cracked teeth because of how teeth function. In chewing, teeth receive a lot of vertical pressure, pressing down with each bite. If a tooth is cracked, each press pushes the crack open slightly. The only way to counteract the spread of the crack is to place something strong over and around the whole tooth. This covering will absorb the force of chewing and will keep the crack from spreading.
If you're like most people, a cracked tooth can seem like the least of your worries.
After all, it usually doesn’t hurt. It may not look that bad. It’s lasted this long? Cracked teeth are just cracked teeth. Until they break… If avoiding dental emergencies matters to you, then you’ll want to take cracked teeth seriously. If you want to keep your own natural teeth long term, you’ll want to treat cracks before they spread into the root or break off unpredictably. Remember, hairline cracks spread continually and unpredictably just like windshield cracks. Because no one can predict how cracks will spread, we can’t predict when teeth will break or how they will break.