Tooth extraction postoperative swelling. -

The characteristics of normal post-op swelling. | Estimating how much to expect. | How to prevent, minimize and bring down post-operative swelling - Treatment with ice. / Treatment with moist heat.

Post-extraction edema.

Edema (swelling) is a normal postoperative event following dental surgery, such as having a tooth pulled. And while the level of swelling that forms will vary between patients and procedures, there is a standard set of remedies used to minimize and manage it.

What steps does the management (prevention and treatment) of swelling involve?

For the most part, a patient's care is divided in two phases:

This page explains the steps involved with both.


Post-extraction tissue swelling - What's normal?

Characteristics and guidelines -

a) Does swelling always occur?

No, but any tooth extraction does have the potential to trigger postoperative edema. It's part of your body's normal response to experiencing trauma.

Tissue inflammation.

The body's response is referred to as an inflammation reaction.

  • A part of this process involves the movement of fluids containing white blood cells into the area of the traumatized tissues. (These cells play an important role in the healing process to come.)
  • It also stimulates increased blood circulation to the area. (A transport method for the nutrient and cell types necessary for tissue repair.)

Due to these activities, and hydrostatic changes that occur in the tissues associated with increased blood vessel permeability, swelling results.

b) What type of extractions are most likely to trigger post-op swelling?

As a rule of thumb, comparatively easier, less involved extractions generally result in less (frequently negligible) tissue swelling. That's because a determining factor in the amount of edema that occurs is the level of trauma that's been created during the surgical process.

Examples.

Extractions that include the following factors tend to create a comparatively higher level of surgical trauma, and therefore a greater level of postoperative edema.

  • Extensive soft tissue manipulation - The more the dentist must work with and handle the soft tissues that surround the tooth being removed, the greater the level of surgical trauma that's created.

    For example, the tissues might need to be incised and reflected back out of the way (creation of a tissue flap) so the dentist has the access they need to the tooth or the bone surrounding it.

  • Bone tissue removal - In some cases, like with impacted or broken teeth, some of the bone tissue surrounding a tooth must be trimmed away before it can be removed. This creates a higher level of surgical trauma than when this step is not needed.
  • Extended surgical time - Increased procedure time generally correlates with a higher level of surgical trauma.
Considerations / Additional factors.
  • Closely related to the above considerations is the difficulty of the extraction involved, which will of course dictate which of them may be required (tissue flap, bone removal, duration of surgery, etc...).

    As evidence, the comparatively more difficult wisdom tooth impaction types disto-angular and horizontal are associated with a higher degree of swelling than the comparatively easier vertical type.

  • Some studies have found that the degree of postoperative swelling is greater in females.

Post-extraction
Complications

c) What's the normal course of events with post-extraction swelling?

When it occurs, what you experience should lie within the following guidelines:

  • The swelling that forms can be expected to gradually increase in size, until it ultimately peaks at a point 2 to 3 days (48 to 72 hours) following your procedure.

    In some cases, the swelling that forms may not be readily apparent until the day following the person's surgery. The area of swelling may show signs of bruising.

  • By day 4, that swelling that has formed should start to subside.
  • From that point on, it should continue to slowly diminish, with full resolution usually occurring by day 7 following the patient's procedure.
  • Note: On the 4th day, if your swelling hasn't begun to subside, or has shown evidence of increasing, you should contact your dentist so they can determine if an underlying problem exists. Swelling that persists beyond 7 days should also be evaluated by your dentist. (Postoperative infection might be suspected.)

 Reference: 

d) Where will the swelling occur?

Generally speaking, the edema that forms will be in the soft tissues directly adjacent to your surgical area. However, larger amounts of swelling will involve ever more distant tissues.

  • With relatively atraumatic cases (routine extractions where the tooth was remove without much difficulty using conventional instruments and methods, and therefore just minimal tissue trauma has occurred), only the inside of your cheek immediately adjacent to your surgical site may show any sign of fullness or enlargement.
  • With more difficult procedures (like surgical extractions, or removing several teeth), the amount of swelling that occurs may be more extensive. It may extend into the side of your face, into your neck, or with upper extractions even up to your lower eyelid.
  • Post-extraction swelling related to surgical trauma will only occur on the same side of your body as your surgical site. (For example, having a back tooth pulled on the right side wouldn't be the cause of tissue enlargement on your left side.)

e) How much swelling can you expect?

The amount of post-extraction edema that forms is basically a function of the amount of surgical trauma created during your procedure, your body's reaction to it, and the mitigating effects of any preventive steps that you have taken (see below).

That, of course, means that no one can know for certain how much will occur. But as general guidelines, here's an idea of what you might expect.

  • With routine extractions - If the tooth you're having removed is reasonably intact and has a relatively normal positioning in your jawbone, it's likely that your dentist will be able to tease it out without too much difficulty using conventional methods and instruments.

    If so, you may not experience any significant amount of swelling at all (this is probably the norm for most extractions). Or if you do, it's usually only mild and easily managed.

  • With difficult extractions - Some teeth turn out to be surprisingly difficult to pull, necessitating that the dentist either wrestle with them more so than is ideal, or deciding that the procedure must instead be performed as a surgical one (removing bone, possibly raising a tissue flap too).

    Similarly, teeth that are extensively decayed, broken or break during the extraction process and therefore are difficult to access and/or manipulate may also require a surgical procedure.

    These types of events tend to add to the overall level of surgical trauma created. And in response, mild to moderate swelling may form.

  • With impacted teeth - Extracting impacted teeth (like wisdom teeth) typically requires reflecting back gum tissue and removing (sometimes significant) quantities of bone tissue.

    It would seem fairly unrealistic not to expect at least some, possibly quite noticeable, swelling after having one removed. The extraction of lower impacted wisdom teeth frequently is associated with substantial swelling.


Treatment and control of post-extraction edema.

Stage 1: Minimizing the total amount of swelling that forms.

a) Cold (ice) application.

You can help to minimize the amount of postoperative swelling that forms by applying cold packs to the outside of your face in the region of your extraction site. This process can be started immediately following the completion of your surgery.

Here's an outline of a way that this technique can be implemented.

  • Select a cold source.

    You can use an ice bag, baggie or a surgical glove (ask your dentist for one) filled with ice. Or you might use a cold pack purchased from your local pharmacy, or even just a bag of frozen vegetables, like peas. This last suggestion works well because the bag will tend to conform to the shape of your face.

    Wrap the cold source you have chosen in a dish towel.

  • Application.

    Hold your cold source firmly against the outside of your face, in the region directly adjacent to where your tooth has been pulled.

    Apply the cold pack for 15 minutes. Then, remove it and leave it off your face for 15 minutes. (15 minutes on, 15 minutes off.)

    If you've had teeth removed on both sides of your face, apply the ice pack first to one side and then the other (15 minutes each).

  • Treatment time frame.

    With routine extractions where the amount of swelling that's expected is just minimal, application cycles performed over the 4 to 6 hours following your procedure are usually sufficient. (Fragiskos)

    With surgeries where a higher level of swelling is anticipated or noticed, it's common that cycles are continued to a point 18 to 24 hours post-op (waking hours only).

    Beyond 24 hours, this technique becomes less and less effective. Dentists vary in their opinion (so ask yours) but cold treatment is typically terminated somewhere in the range of 24 to 48 hours after your surgery took place. (Koerner)

  • Important precautions.

    The purpose of using on/off application cycles is that it creates the beneficial effect of this treatment (explained below), while minimizing the potential for damage to the tissues in the region from the effects of cold. (Sortino)

    Keep in mind that on the day of your extraction you may still be numb. So you must be careful not to create a temperature extreme that you might not be aware of.

    Cold application should only be performed during waking hours, so the cyclical on/off nature of the treatment can be maintained.

Why does cold (ice) therapy work?
  1. The cold environment created by an ice pack causes the blood vessels in the area to constrict (become narrower).
  2. This constriction in turn reduces the total volume of fluids that can be transported by and ooze out of the vessels into the surrounding tissues.
  3. As a result, a lesser amount of swelling forms.

(Sortino) [linked above]

Does cold (ice) therapy work?

Surprisingly enough, not all research studies confirm the effectiveness of ice application in reducing post extraction edema (Sortino) [linked above]. In response we will simply state:

  • It's rare that this remedy isn't included in a dentist's list of postoperative instructions, implying that the majority of clinicians feel it is an effective measure.
  • This is essentially the only preventive measure for post-op swelling that you the patient has an opportunity to perform.

b) Additional remedies.

Positioning your head so it's blood pressure is slightly reduced can help to minimize the amount of swelling that occurs.

  • The general idea is to keep your "head above your heart."
  • As opposed to lying down, sit (or recline) up right.
  • When lying down, elevate your head using 2 or 3 pillows.
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Stage 2: Bringing the swelling down as quickly as possible.

Swelling that forms in response to the tissue trauma created during the extraction process can be expected to peak around 2 to 3 days after your surgery (48 to 72 hours). Once this point has been reached, you can help to bring it down more quickly via the application of warm compresses.

a) Heat application.

  • Select a heat source.

    A hot water bottle, moistened towel, or a heat pack purchased from your pharmacy can be used.

  • Precautions.

    The goal is to warm the swollen area, not to burn or scald it. So, manipulate the temperature of your heat source accordingly.

    Moist heat will be less irritating to your skin. So wrap your heat source in a lightly moistened dish towel. Lubricating your skin with petroleum jelly can help to minimize irritation too.

  • Application.

    Hold the heat compress against your face in the region of the swelling.

    Leave it in place for 20 minutes, then remove it and leave it off for the next 20. (20 minutes on, 20 minutes off.)

    Repeat this routine for several cycles, multiple times throughout your waking day.

  • Treatment time frame.

    This technique shouldn't be used until that point when your swelling has finally reached its peak, which is generally considered to be 48 to 72 hours after your extraction.

    That would typically mean starting this process on day 3 or 4 after your surgery (Koerner) [linked above]. Dentists vary in precisely what they recommend, so you'll need to check with yours.

    This technique can then be used over the following days as you feel is required, until your swelling has resolved. Remember, this process doesn't bring your swelling down immediately, only more quickly than it would have otherwise. It may still take several days.

Why does heat therapy work?
  1. The warmth of the heat compress causes the blood vessels in the area to dilate (become enlarged).
  2. While dilated, the blood vessels are able to carry away the fluids that have caused your swelling more efficiently (a greater volume of liquid per unit of time).
  3. As a result, your swelling goes down more quickly.

Pay attention to your progress.

As mentioned above, swelling typically starts to resolve on its own by about day 4 after your surgery. If at this point it remains the same or has increased, you should report this fact to your dentist. Swelling that hasn't fully subsided by day 7 should be reported to your dentist also.

Back to our post-extraction complications page. ▶

 

Last revision/review: 10/3/2018 - Major revision. Content added.

 
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