Dental crowns ("caps") - What are they? When is one needed? -

Reasons why teeth are capped. | Examples of applications and uses for crowns. | Age limitations.

1) What are dental crowns?

  1. A crown ("cap") is a type of dental restoration that fully cups over that portion of a tooth or dental implant that lies at and above the gum line.
  2. Once placed, it in effect becomes the tooth's new outer surface. (In comparison, a dental filling just fills in or repairs a portion of a tooth.)
  3. Crowns are permanently cemented into place. The tooth-crown unit that is created functions and is cared for just like a natural tooth.


2) Why are they placed?

There are several reasons why a dental crown might be made for a tooth. Dentists routinely use them to:

  1. Repair and strengthen damaged teeth.
  2. Improve tooth appearance (including color, shape and even apparent alignment).


While some other treatment alternatives do exist, no other kind of dental restoration provides the exact same set of benefits and advantages as a crown.

For more details about why they're placed, see below.

Slideshow: What Are Dental Crowns?

Slideshow explaining what dental crowns are.

3) Other terms for crowns.

Are a cap and a crown the same thing?
Yes, the terms "caps," "dental caps" and "tooth caps" are all interchangeable and can be used to refer to any type of dental crown. To its credit, this name does aptly describe what this type of restoration does. It caps (covers over) a tooth.
What is a tooth jacket?
As another alternative, the term "porcelain jacket" can be used to refer to some types of all-ceramic dental crowns (typically just placed on front teeth). This is a historic technique dating back to 1880s.
What terminology does your dentist use?
All of the alternative terms mentioned above are relatively archaic and most frequently just used by patients or the popular press.

In dental literature (textbooks, journals, studies, etc...), you'll essentially never see the word "cap" used. Nor do most dentists use it when conversing with professional colleagues. The word "jacket" does still linger somewhat professionally but its use is far overshadowed by the term "crown."

Just out of curiosity, we searched the contents of two of the most-used textbooks in this field (they're also the primary resources for our pages). Neither book (Shillingburg or Rosenstiel) used the term "cap" in reference to a dental crown. Both used the term "porcelain jacket" less than a dozen times but only in a historical context.

Section references - Rosenstiel, Shillingburg

Slideshow: The different types of dental crown construction.

Slideshow outlining different types of dental crown construction.

4) What kinds of materials are crowns made out of?

Crowns can be constructed using:
  1. Porcelain alone (more frequently, other types of dental ceramics are used.)
  2. Metal alone (precious, semi-precious or non-precious dental alloy).
  3. A combination of dental ceramic and metal alloy (porcelain-fused-to-metal crowns).
Each of the above types of restorations has its own characteristic advantages and disadvantages, and therefore its own set of most-suited applications.

We've dedicated an entire page to this topic. - What type of dental crown makes the best choice for you?


5) Dental crown age limitations.

While there are no strict age-related limitations regarding when a dental crown can be placed, there are some important issues that should be considered.

How old do you need to be to get a crown?

Generally speaking, and primarily based on growth and development issues that tend to wind down by this point, a dentist will usually prefer to wait until a patient has reached the age of 17 or 18 years before they consider placing a permanent dental crown for them. Here's why:

  • Crest of gum line issues. - During the course of jawbone growth and tooth eruption, the position of a tooth's gum line will change. Generally, with maturity more of the tooth's crown becomes visible (although what's discernible between any two sequential years may just be very minor).

    If placed before this process has substantially completed, the gum-line edge of a crown may be revealed, thus spoiling the restoration's appearance.

    A crown's retention can be enhanced by designing it so it cups over a greater portion of its tooth. Delaying crown placement until the tooth has come closer to its final positioning above the gum line can make accomplishing this design easier.


  • Pulp chamber size. - The dimensions of a tooth's pulp chamber (the space inside a tooth that houses its nerve tissue) decrease with age. And generally speaking, the further a tooth's pulp tissue is from the aspect of the tooth where work is being performed (such as tooth trimming for a crown) the less likelihood for complications with it.

    While the difference in pulp chamber dimensions between any two sequential years may be small, the amount of change experienced over the period of adolescence can be significant. With the comparatively smaller size that exists as a late teen providing an advantage.


With the exception of insurance issues, none of the factors above apply to all adolescents at the exact same age. And because of this, with some patients a dental crown may be placed as early as age 12 to 14 years. (Dean)

Section references - Dean, Rosenstiel

6) Reasons why dental crowns are placed.

A dentist might recommend capping a tooth for a variety of reasons but most tend to fall within one or more of the following categories:


Make sure you understand why a crown is needed.

In some instances, a dentist's recommendation to place a "cap" is based solely on their judgment, as opposed to clear-cut clinical signs. Adding in the fact that they can be quite costly (and therefore a substantial profit center for a dental practice), creates the situation where finances may influence the diagnosis given.

Just as not placing a crown when one is needed has associated risks, performing the process of crown placement opens the door for potential complications too.

For this reason, this procedure should not be performed without reasonable justification. Let your dentist explain to you why they feel it's required. You may not fully understand all of their arguments (read our text below for further insight) but they should at least make some logical sense.

Section references - Wilson

A dental crown case.

Before picture of a dental crown case..

Example smile makeover cases where crowns are used to rebuild damaged teeth.

7) Applications for placing crowns.

A) Rebuilding / Changing the shape of teeth.

Since a cemented crown becomes its tooth's new outer surface, it's not hard to imagine how placing one can be used to rebuild or improve a tooth's shape.
"Caps" are routinely used as a solution for worn, chipped or broken teeth. Or those that are misshapen due to a developmental anomaly.
Advantages of a crown.

In some instances, it's conceivable that a dental filling might be placed as an alternative to a crown. But the latter may offer big advantages due to the way that it's fabricated.

  • Crowns are a type of "indirect" dental restoration. That means they are made in a dental laboratory by a dental technician using copies (impressions) of your teeth.
  • In comparison, dental fillings are a type of "direct" restoration, meaning they're fabricated during your dental appointment by applying materials directly to your tooth.


Why indirect fabrication can be an asset.

The big difference between the two methods is that when a dental laboratory is involved (indirect fabrication) the technician will, at their own pace, get an opportunity to evaluate aspects of your bite and jaw movements from a variety of angles using the copies of your mouth they have, and then sculpt your dental crown so it has the ideal shape.

With a dental filling (direct fabrication), the dentist may have far less control over the restoration's final contours because it may be difficult for them to visualize, evaluate, or have access to the tooth they're working on. There may also be time constraints involved, either associated with the materials being used (i.e. setting times) or the patient's tolerance for the procedure.

When a crown is made, the lab technician and dentist have an opportunity to create the most ideal shaped restoration possible essentially 100% of the time. With fillings, while a perfectly serviceable result can usually be expected, achieving absolute perfection is quite difficult.

B) Strengthening teeth.

Dental crowns are routinely placed on teeth that have broken, have had large portions destroyed by tooth decay or have had root canal treatment.

That's because beyond just restoring a tooth's shape, a crown can provide a reinforcing and strengthening effect too.

In comparison, fillings (amalgam or dental bonding) typically can't provide a substantial reinforcing effect for a tooth to the same degree.

(We discuss the issue of how to choose between having a filling or crown placed here.)

Not all types of crowns provide the same level of protection.

Being able to provide a strengthening effect is always true for all-metal and porcelain-fused-to-metal crowns.

The strength and durability characteristics of all-ceramic crowns vary by materials and construction method, so quiz your dentist about the track record of the type they plan to place for you if a strengthening effect is needed.

C) Improving the appearance of teeth.

Because a dental crown encases the entire visible portion of a tooth, porcelain crowns (porcelain-fused-to-metal and especially all-ceramic ones) can be used to enhance or idealize the cosmetic appearance of teeth.

A dental crown case.

Before picture of a dental crown case.

Example makeover cases where crowns are used to enhance the appearance of a smile.

If taken to an extreme, this technique can be used to radically improve the appearance of a person's smile. In fact, in decades past it was common to hear of movie stars who had had their teeth "capped." This simply meant that they got their perfect "Hollywood" smile by way of having dental crowns placed.

Capping isn't necessarily a good idea.
Actually, having your teeth capped just (only) to improve their appearance typically makes a very poor choice.

Neither the crown nor the tooth's improved appearance can be expected to last a lifetime (this page discusses reasons why). And as a result, the crowning process will likely need to be repeated multiple times over the remainder of the person's life.

Dental crowns only make the best choice for making cosmetic changes in situations where they simultaneously serve other purposes, such as restoring teeth to their original shape or strengthening them. If those applications aren't needed, then it's best to at least consider alternative approaches first.

You should always consider the alternatives.

As a general rule, a crown shouldn't be placed solely to improve the appearance of a tooth if there is some alternative procedure that could just as well achieve the same end result. That's because during the crowning procedure large portions of the tooth are trimmed away.

If a more conservative dental procedure (one that tends to preserve tooth structure, as opposed to sacrificing it) can equally improve a tooth's appearance, such as a porcelain veneer, dental bonding, or even just teeth whitening (professional or at-home), then it's usually best to consider that treatment option first.

(Even though one of the above alternatives may only offer an improved, but not perfect, result, choosing it may offer substantial advantages over the long run. Here's a link to our page that discusses this issue from a standpoint of having veneers placed. In general, these same arguments apply to a set of crowns too.)

Other aspects of capping teeth we cover on our pages.

Besides the links we've referenced in our text above, there are several other pages on that visitors frequently seek.

One involves an explanation of some of the common problems people experience with crowns (both permanent and temporary). This includes not only various types of pain and sensitivity but also what to do if you've lost or even swallowed one.

Due to the high price of gold, people are often interested in our page that discusses how to sell scrap dental restorations. And then, as a brief overview, we've also composed a page titled: 6 things to consider when choosing what kind of dental crown to have made.


 Page references sources: 

Dean JA, et al. McDonald and Avery's Dentistry for the Child and Adolescent. Chapter: Prosthodontic Treatment of the Adolescent Patient.

Rosenstiel SF, et al. Contemporary Fix Prosthodontics.

Shillingburg HT, et al. Fundamentals of Fixed Prosthodontics.

Wilson N, et al. Manual of Clinical Procedures in Dentistry. Chapter: Procedures in Prosthodontics.

All reference sources for topic Dental Crowns.