Baby (primary) teeth look and function much like their permanent counterparts. Besides having a visible crown, they also have roots that maintain contact with the jawbone.
But there are some differences, the biggest one being the normal process whereby primary tooth roots dissolve or, in dental terms, resorb. Root resorption eventually leads to the tooth coming loose to make way for the permanent tooth.
Adult tooth roots can also resorb — but it's decidedly not normal. If adult root resorption isn't promptly treated, it could also lead to tooth loss — but there won't be an incoming tooth to take its place.
Although it can begin inside a tooth, adult root resorption usually begins on the outside. One type, external cervical resorption (ECR), begins around the neck-like area of the tooth not far below the gum line. Its initial signs are small pink spots where the tooth enamel has eroded; those pink cells within the space are doing the damage.
We don't fully understand the mechanism behind ECR, but there are some factors that often contribute. People with periodontal ligament damage or trauma, sometimes due to too much force applied during orthodontic treatment, have a high risk of ECR. Some bleaching techniques for staining inside a tooth may also be a factor.
The key to treating ECR is to detect it as early as possible before it does too much root damage. Regular checkups with x-rays play a pivotal role in early detection. Advanced stages of ECR might require more advanced diagnostics like a cone beam computed tomography (CBCT) scan to fully assess the damage.
If the lesion is small, we can surgically remove the cells causing the damage and fill the site with a tooth-colored filling. If ECR has spread toward the pulp, the tooth's inner nerve center, we may also need to perform a root canal treatment.
Either of these methods intends to save the tooth, but there is a point where the damage is too great and it's best to remove the tooth and replace it with a life-like dental implant or other restoration. That's why it requires vigilance through regular, semi-annual dental visits to detect the early signs of root resorption before it's too late.
If you would like more information on adult tooth root resorption, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Root Resorption.”