The tooth extraction procedure. -
How dentists pull teeth (the steps and tools used). / What it's like to have a tooth removed (what you'll hear and feel). / What the term "simple" extraction means.
This page provides an outline of the process that a dentist uses when they extract a tooth for a patient.
- It explains the purpose of each of the steps of the procedure and how the dentist uses their instruments when performing them.
- It also describes some of the routine sensations and sounds (both pain and non-pain related) that you'll have the potential to experience.
The more you know about the extraction process, the easier yours will be.
Pulling your tooth is more likely to go quickly and uneventfully if you, the patient, contribute toward it. The contribution you have to offer is cooperation.
Patients who moan, flinch and squirm at every routine, non-issue sound or sensation are simply making their procedure more difficult and drawn out.
Be intelligent. Take the time to learn what can be expected during a tooth extraction and what shouldn't (and therefore needs to be brought to the attention of your dentist if it occurs).
Doing so will help to insure that having your tooth pulled will go as easily and smoothly as possible.
Extracting teeth - The procedure.
A) Numbing your tooth.
As a first step, your dentist will need to anesthetize ("numb up") both your tooth and the bone and gum tissue that surround it.
At this point in time, there is still no way for a dentist to predictably administer a local anesthetic except as an injection (a "shot").
We'll admit that receiving one may hurt a bit. But we'll also emphatically state that it doesn't always.
Here's more information about this subject. It may help to put your mind at ease: Will my dental injection hurt?
B) The extraction process - What to expect.
1) Here's the overall game plan.
When a tooth is pulled, here's the situation that your dentist has.
- The root portion of a tooth is firmly encased in bone (its socket), and tightly held in place by a ligament.
- During the extraction process, they must both "expand the socket" (widen and enlarge it) and separate the tooth from its ligament.
- After working toward this goal, a point is finally reached where the tooth is loose and free to come out.
Rocking a stake back and forth widens its hole.
Rocking a tooth back and forth enlarges its socket.
What does "expanding" a socket mean?
If you've ever tried to remove a tent stake that has been driven deeply into the ground, you know that you can't just pull the stake straight up and out.
Instead, you first have to rock the stake back and forth so to widen (expand) the hole in which it's lodged.
Once the hole has been enlarged enough, the stake will come out easily.
Teeth are somewhat the same.
In the case of a tooth, the bone that encases its root is relatively spongy. And because of this, when a dentist applies firm pressure to it (rocking it back and forth against the walls of its socket), the bone compresses.
After repeated application of pressure, from many different angles, the entire socket gradually becomes enlarged (expanded).
Finally, a point is reached where enough space has been created (and simultaneously the ligament separated from the tooth enough) that the tooth will come on out.
2) Your dentist will use these tools.
Dentists have a variety of instruments that they can use to grasp or apply pressure to teeth. Some of them are specialized pliers called "extraction forceps." Others are levers called "elevators."
Using an elevator to extract a tooth.
a) Dental Elevators
These instruments look like small screw drivers. Their design is such that they can be wedged into the ligament space between the tooth and its surrounding bone (as shown in our picture).
As the elevator is forced into and twisted around in this space, the tooth is pressed and rocked against the bone. This helps to expand the socket. It also helps to separate the tooth from its ligament.
As this work is continued, the tooth gradually becomes more and more mobile in its socket.
In some cases, the dentist may be able to completely remove the tooth with just this tool. If not, the dentist will switch to the use of extraction forceps to complete the job.
Extracting a tooth with forceps.
b) Extraction Forceps
Extraction forceps are plier-like instruments used to grasp teeth. A dentist will usually have a number of different ones on hand, each having a design that's:
- Tailored to the specific shape of different teeth (both their crown and root portions).
- Able to direct forces to teeth having various anatomical positionings.
When they're used, the dentist will grasp the tooth with the forceps and then firmly and deliberately rock it back and forth as much as it will. Because the bone that surrounds the tooth is compressible, the socket will expand.
In addition to a rocking motion, the dentist will also rotate the tooth back and forth. This twisting action helps to rip and tear the tooth from the ligament that binds it in place.
At some point, the socket will be enlarged enough, and the ligament torn enough, that the tooth can be easily removed.
C) What you'll feel during your extraction.
The anesthetics dentists use to "numb up" teeth are very effective at inhibiting (conking out) those nerve fibers that transmit pain. But they're not effective on those that transmit the sensation of pressure.
1) You'll feel pressure.
That means you should expect to feel pressure during your extraction procedure, possibly even a whole lot of it. But don't assume that doing so indicates that you'll soon be feeling pain too because it doesn't.
That sensation is transmitted by entirely different nerve fibers. And they have been put out of commission by the anesthetic.
2) You shouldn't feel any pain.
There can be times when a patient's tooth hasn't been adequately anesthetized and more anesthetic is needed.
So, if you do find that you do feel pain during your procedure (discomfort that has a sharpness to it), you should let your dentist know so they can "numb you up" some more.
But be accurate in what you are reporting. More anesthetic will do nothing to take away the sensation of pressure. And, in fact, the needless administration of additional quantities of anesthetic may place you at greater risk for medical complications during your procedure.
D) Expect that you might hear some startling noises.
As explained above, pulling teeth is a fairly physical process.
And in light of this fact, it should be no surprise to learn that you may hear a minor snap or breaking noise during your procedure. After all, hard tissues (teeth and bone) are involved.
The good news is that most of these events are just routine and nothing to get excited about. The two most common ones are bone fracture and root breakage.
a) Broken tooth roots.
You may hear your tooth's root break during the extraction process.
And while this isn't necessarily a frequent occurrence, it happens often enough that your dentist has probably dealt with this situation many times before.
The consequences of having a root break can vary.
- The piece may prove to be uncooperative and retrieving it may add a fair amount of time to your procedure.
- In other cases, the part that's left has already loosened up somewhat and can be teased out relatively easily. (Remember our elevator Takeaway above?)
b) Bone fracture.
The type of bone tissue found in the center of the jawbone is relatively spongy. In comparison, its outer surface (the cortical plate) is relatively dense.
During an extraction, as pressure is applied to the tooth the spongy bone that surrounds its root will compress. The denser cortical plate, however, is more brittle and if it receives enough of this pressure it may snap. In the vast majority of cases, this type of breakage is just a minor event (a "hairline" fracture).
After the tooth has been removed, the dentist will simply compress the empty socket so the bone is squished back into place. The fracture can be expected to heal, uneventfully, in tandem with the extraction site as a whole.
E) "Closing" the extraction site.
Once your tooth has been removed, your dentist will begin the process of closing up your extraction site. This sometimes includes:
- Removing infected or pathologic tissue by curetting (scraping) the walls of the tooth socket.
- Using finger pressure to compress the "expanded" socket.
- Rounding off sharp bone edges.
- Evaluating the tooth socket for sinus complications (when upper back teeth have been removed).
- Washing out ("irrigating") the socket, so to remove any loose bone or tooth fragments that remain.
- If your dentist is concerned about the possibility of prolonged bleeding, placing materials in the socket that promote blood clot formation.
- Placing stitches [this is most likely after "surgical" extractions (see below) or when several teeth in a row have been removed.]
- Placing folded gauze over your extraction site and then having you bite down on it so to create firm pressure.
Once they've finished, your dentist will provide you with a list of postoperative instructions. These are extremely important and must be followed.
What becomes of your tooth and its dental restoration?
a) Simple extractions.
Surgical (#1) and "Simple" (#2) extractions.
A vast majority of tooth extractions are completed using the simple mechanics described above. Specifically:
- The minor expansion of the socket and adjacent bone.
- Separation of the ligament that binds the tooth in its socket.
- The uncomplicated removal of the tooth using extraction forceps.
Actually, there's a name (a classification) for these types of cases. They're literally termed "simple" extractions.
Removing tooth #2 in our picture will likely be a "simple" extraction. Although it's severely decayed, it's erupted and has a normal positioning. It can probably be teased out just using the techniques described above.
b) Surgical tooth extractions.
There can be situations where some aspect of a tooth, such as its positioning, shape, brittleness or deteriorated state complicates its removal. If so, a "surgical" extraction will be required.
One interesting aspect of this process is that the surgical steps taken simply set the stage so the tooth can then be removed using the same basic principles explained above.
The impacted tooth (#1) in our picture will require "surgical" removal. (Use this link for details about this type of procedure.)
Our next page outlines extraction aftercare. ▶
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