What Causes a Chipped Tooth?

By – Bad Breath Expert
Posted: August 20, 2009, Updated: June 26, 2019
SUMMARY: Chipping a tooth can be an alarming occurrence. Learn about what causes a chipped tooth and what you can do to prevent it from happening to you

Why Do Teeth Break and Chip?

Most people have experienced chipping or breaking one of their teeth at one point or another.  However, they may not know why it happened.  An accidental injury, bite discrepancies, grinding (bruxism), clenching, or tooth decay (a tooth that has decayed enough to undermine its surface) can obviously cause breakage.  However, it is not common knowledge that one's tooth can also break/chip if a tooth filling (either amalgram silver and composite fillings) is not the right size or has any cracks in it. 

What To Do If You Break Your Tooth

Since breaks can range from small chips to major fractures, you could either need a major procedure or no treatment at all.  A tooth has three layers: the enamel (hard outer coating), the dentin (middle layer under the enamel), and the pulp, which is the tooth's fleshy nerve center. 

The most common tooth breakage is just a chip where one's tooth simply loses some enamel.  Usually, no pain is felt.  If enough tooth enamel is chipped off, the dentin may be exposed.  The tooth may not hurt too much, but it is more sensitive to cold.  The worst breaks expose the pulp, which can cause extreme pain and even bleeding. If you get a small chip in your tooth and it is feeling sensitive, try a pain reliever (if it is safe for you to take it), and make a dental appointment. 

For more serious fractures, rinse your mouth out with warm water, and make a dentist appointment as soon as possible.  If you take a pain reliever, do not take aspirin as it increases the risk of heavy bleeding.  If your mouth was injured and your soft tissue is swelling, apply an ice pack to it. 

A dental emergency involves your whole tooth being knocked out, roots and all, and this requires immediate treatment to save the tooth. Pharmacies sell tooth savers, which is something people should keep in their medicine cabinets in case of an emergency like this.  The tooth should be carried to the dentist in a container of either your saliva or milk.  Do not touch the root of the tooth, so it does not get damaged.  Handle the tooth gently, do not scrub it, but you can rinse the tooth with milk if you feel the need to.

Broken Tooth Treatment

Even if your tooth only got chipped, the dentist is probably going to take an x-ray of the damaged tooth and recommend being gentle with it for a few days.  Usually a minor chip can be smoothed out/polished, or perhaps filled with a composite material.  If the break is more serious, rapid treatment is needed.  If dentin is exposed, a dentist can cover it with a material that will provide protection temporarily until a more specific treatment is begun. 

A tooth can almost always be completely recovered with a permanent crown if the pulp remains healthy.  Unfortunately, if the pulp is damaged, the solution will be more complicated.  Endodontists and general dentists perform root canals in order to remove the damaged pulp before putting on a crown.  An immediate follow-up may be requested if the break in your tooth is more than a small chip, in order to make sure it is healing correctly. 

How to Prevent Your Teeth From Chipping/Breaking

People can take various precautions in order to prevent a tooth fracture from happening.  While playing sports, one can use a mouth guard that protects the teeth while allowing the person to breathe and be active without distraction.  One should go on regular dental checkups for preventive treatment and practice proper oral care habits at home.  By doing this, one will prevent the development of tooth decay that could induce breakage. 

If you have large fillings in one or more of your teeth, you should probably get the high-risk teeth crowned because the preventative treatment is less painful and costly than if you wait until they fracture.  It is common for root canals to be needed for teeth cracked from oversized fillings in order to save them.  Sometimes the tooth will need to be removed from your mouth completely if the case is severe enough.  Crowns hold teeth together by surrounding them in a continuous shell. 

Also, if you have an uneven bite or an issue with bruxism or clenching, your dentist can take care of any problems caused by these issues in a comprehensive treatment plan for mouth restoration; with this, uneven and extreme wear is minimized and cracks are much less likely to occur.

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