Perhaps the earliest example of dental implants were seashells found in the jaw of an ancient Mayan skeleton from 1,300 years ago. While the Mayans were known for their surprisingly advanced dental knowledge, their seashell solution is a long way from today’s modern dental implants. And like many amazing, world-changing inventions, dental implants discovered practically by mistake.
It all started in Sweden in 1952. An orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Per-Ingvar Branemark conducted an experiment studying bone healing and blood flow that involved placing titanium rods in the legs of rabbits. At the end of his months-long experiment, he went to remove the rods from the rabbits’ legs and discovered they were totally fixed in place. The bone had fused to the titanium and grown around it.
This was remarkable because the human body (and the rabbit body for that matter) usually doesn’t like foreign objects being placed inside it. The body views the object as a threat and rejects it. Just think about how irritated and painful your skin becomes when you get a splinter.
Following his discovery, Dr. Branemark coined the term “osseointegration” to describe the process of bone adhering to metal. (“Osseo” comes from the Latin word for bone.) Using titanium as anchors for replacement teeth was on of the first applications that Dr. Branemark thought of for his discovery. He placed the first implants in a dental patient in the mid-1960s, however, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the use of titanium implants became accepted by the rest of the medical and dental community.
Since then, the technology has continued to advance as scientists and dentists strive create better versions of dental implants. Improvements have been made to the materials, shapes and installation techniques of dental implants, leading to shorter healing times and making the procedure available to a wider range of patients.
The difference between traditional techniques of tooth replacement and dental implants is like the difference between a peg leg and a high-tech bionic prosthetic leg. The development of dental implants allowed dentists, for the first time, to truly replace a tooth. Because implants have a root and a crown structure just like a real tooth, they function just like a real tooth and can last for decades, unlike bridges and dentures which often need to be adjusted and replaced.
While many patients have only heard of the dental implants procedure within the last few years, the truth is that the concept of dental implants has been around for centuries, and modern dental implants have been around for over 60 years. The success of implants in restoring missing teeth to patients’ mouths truly makes it feel like we’re in a golden age of dentistry. Dentists the world over are grateful to have this amazing technology at their disposal to restore patients’ smiles.
See the Fairmont San Francisco Gingerbread House at the Fairmont in San Francisco on Saturday, December 30.