Maxillofacial Surgery

When facial reconstruction, including procedures involving the oral cavity, is called for, a specialist is needed. Surgical procedures of the neck and head area are performed by a maxillofacial surgeon. Common maxillofacial procedures include denture-related procedures and jaw surgery. Other kinds of maxillofacial procedures can correct problems with upper facial features such as the nose and cheek as well.

Denture Fatigue

People who have worn dentures for a long time can sometimes experience a loss of gum tissue and even bone, mostly from the wear and tear of the appliance on the soft tissues of their mouth. In extreme cases, maxillofacial surgery, including bone grafts, manipulation of soft tissues or even jaw realignment, may be performed to correct such problems.

Jaw Correction

In some people, jaws do not grow at the same rate; one may come in larger than the other, or simply not be aligned properly with other bony structures in the skull. This can cause problems other than appearance issues; an improperly aligned jaw can cause problems with the tongue and lips, and speech and chewing problems as well. Jaw surgery can move jaws into their proper place.

In addition to correcting jaw problems surgically, orthodontic appliances such as braces may be needed to restore bite relationship and ensure continued proper alignment of the jaw. In some cases, tiny wires or small rubber bands may be needed to keep the jaws in place and promote faster healing. In other cases, small “fixation” screws or plates may need to be inserted in the jaws to facilitate easy movement of the jaws following surgery.

Corrective Jaw (Orthognathic) Surgery

In many cases, problems with the bite or the alignment of the teeth can be corrected using today’s advanced methods of dental and orthodontic treatment. Sometimes, however, skeletal and dental irregularities aren’t so easy to remedy, even with the most up-to-date non-surgical techniques. That’s when corrective jaw surgery (also called orthognathic surgery) may be recommended.

While it may sound like a complex and demanding treatment, jaw surgery isn’t always so serious. It’s often performed as a routine in-office procedure — for example, to extract impacted wisdom teeth (molars that don’t fully protrude through the gums), or to place dental implants in the jaw. However, it can also be used to remedy severe orthodontic problems involving the relationship between the teeth and jaws, including the correction of underbites (the most frequent surgical correction) and congenital abnormalities (birth defects) related to jaw development. It can even help alleviate sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening condition.

Who Can Benefit from Jaw Surgery

People who have problems related to the jaws, tooth alignment, and facial asymmetries, which create difficulties chewing, talking, sleeping, or carrying on routine activities, may benefit from having orthognathic (jaw) surgery. These procedures can also be used to correct aesthetic issues, such as a protruding jaw, a congenital defect, or an unbalanced facial appearance.

After a thorough examination, it can be determined if you’re a candidate for orthognathic surgery. In general, if orthodontic treatment can solve the problem, that’s where you will start. Yet, while orthodontics can successfully align the teeth, it’s sometimes the jaws themselves that need to be brought into line. In most cases, orthodontic appliances, such as braces and retainers, will be used before and after the surgical phase of treatment, to ensure that you end up with an effective — and aesthetically pleasing — result.

Conditions that can be successfully treated with corrective orthognathic surgery include the following:

  • Open bite, protruding jaw or receding chin

  • Congenital defects such as a cleft palate

  • Malocclusions (bite problems) resulting from underbites or severe overbites

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea, when more conservative methods fail

  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing or biting food

  • Chronic jaw or jaw joint (TMJ) pain and headache

  • Unbalanced facial appearance from the front or side

  • Inability to make the lips meet without straining

  • Chronic mouth breathing and dry mouth

  • Facial trauma

The Surgical Procedure

While every patient’s needs are different, it’s possible to outline some typical steps in the process. The first (and perhaps most important) component is consultation and planning among members of the dental team, including the restorative or general dentist, the orthodontist, and the oral surgeon. Your overall plan may involve orthodontic treatments along with surgical procedures. Using diagnostic images, 3-D models and advanced software, a step-by-step plan will be developed for the entire process. It’s even possible in many cases to show you a picture of what you’ll look like when your treatment is finished.

The surgery itself may occur in a hospital or an office setting, with the type of anesthesia that’s most appropriate for the procedure, and for your comfort. Because the actual surgery is generally performed inside the mouth, it often leaves no visible traces. After the procedure, minor pain and swelling can be controlled by over-the-counter or prescription pain medication. A soft or liquid diet may be recommended for a period of time following the procedure.

Following surgery, your condition will be closely monitored — as will your progress through each phase of the treatment plan. When it’s complete, you can enjoy the benefits of improved functionality and an enhanced appearance.

Facial Trauma and Reconstructive Surgery

When you were a youngster, did you ever get a black eye, chip a tooth or bruise your cheek? If so, you may have experienced a case (let’s hope, a mild one!) of facial trauma. In many situations, however, facial trauma can be severe. Among its major causes are auto accidents, sports injuries, work-related mishaps, falls, and acts of violence. When a serious facial injury occurs, it’s important that you receive immediate and comprehensive care. That’s why oral and maxillofacial surgeons are on call at most emergency and trauma centers.

Facial trauma, in general, involves injuries to the soft- or hard tissue structures of the face, mouth or jaws — including the teeth, the bones of the jaws and face, and the tissue of the skin and gums. It can also involve treatment of particular specialized regions, such as the area around the eyes, the salivary glands or facial nerves. Because facial injuries can affect not only a person’s ability to carry on basic life functions (eating, vision, etc) but also his or her appearance, there is often a strong emotional component to treatment as well as a physical one. But after completing an extensive training program, oral and maxillofacial surgeons are capable of handling the full scope of facial injuries.

Treatments for Facial Injury

Some facial traumas are relatively minor. A common one occurs when a tooth is loosened or knocked out (avulsed). Many times, if treated immediately, the tooth can be successfully re-implanted in the jaw. If that isn’t possible, placing a dental implant is often the most effective way to replace a missing tooth.

Another type of relatively common but more serious injury may involve a fracture of the facial bones, including the cheekbones, upper or lower jawbones, or the eye sockets. In principle, its treatment is essentially the same as that used for a broken arm: place the bones back in their proper position, and immobilize them. But since it isn’t possible to put a cast on the face, different immobilization techniques are used. One method involves wiring the upper and lower jaws together to let them heal in the correct alignment; alternatively, plates and screws may be used to permanently reattach the bones.

Severe facial trauma is often a critical condition since over 60% of these patients also have serious injuries in other parts of the body. In fact, many of the standard techniques used in trauma centers were developed by oral and maxillofacial surgeons during the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Restoring breathing, controlling bleeding and checking for neurological damage are top priorities. After that, as much of the reconstructive surgery as possible is accomplished in one operation.

Preventing Facial Trauma

What’s the best treatment for facial trauma? Prevention. Always wearing seat belts, using proper helmets and protective gear when playing sports, and staying out of dangerous situations (like driving while impaired, tired or distracted) can go a long way toward keeping you safe. If you’re engaging in athletic activities that carry any risk of facial injury, wear a properly fitted mouthguard — this small piece of protective equipment can save you a lot of potential harm.

But if you (or someone you care for) require a trip to the emergency room for a facial injury, be sure to ask for a consultation with an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, so that you get the best care and the most favorable outcome.

Sinus Surgery

If you want to replace a missing or failing tooth with a state-of-the-art dental, your dentist will first need to make sure that you have sufficient bone in your jaw to anchor the implant. This is true no matter what type of tooth is being replaced. However, if it is an upper back tooth and there is not enough bone under the gum where the implant needs to go, the base of the implant could end up poking through an air space (located to the side of the nose) called a sinus cavity. Since you can’t anchor a dental implant to air, this presents a problem — but it is one that can often be solved with a minor in-office surgical procedure called a “sinus membrane lift.”

A sinus membrane lift, or sinus augmentation, involves adding bone to fill in the bottom of that air space, essentially raising the floor of the sinus cavity. Why wouldn’t there be enough bone there already? For some people, it’s simply a matter of how large their sinus cavities are and their shape. In other cases, bone has actually been lost from the area. For example, if your tooth has been missing a long time, the bone that used to surround it may have begun to deteriorate. Bone in general needs stimulation to stay strong; in the case of the jawbone, that stimulation comes from the teeth. When teeth are lost, the bone loses stimulation and the body ceases to make new bone cells in that area. This leads to a reduction in bone volume and density. Also, if your tooth loss was due to periodontal (gum) disease, your tooth-supporting bone may have been reduced as a result of the disease. No matter what the reason is for insufficient bone, a sinus membrane lift can create more bone where it is needed.

Where does this additional bone come from? It can be bone from elsewhere in your body, such as another part of your jaw or your hip. But most often, it will be bone-grafting materials that are processed in a laboratory for these kinds of purposes. The original source may have been a human or animal donor (usually a cow). Synthetic products can also be used. All grafting materials must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and prepared according to their guidelines. The materials are specially treated to render them completely sterile, non-contagious, and free of rejection factors. For the most part, bone grafts act as scaffolds that the body will eventually replace with its own bone.

The Procedure

Prior to scheduling surgery, your dentist will assess the shape, location, and health of the sinus using x-ray imaging. Your options for anesthesia will also be discussed. The surgery itself is usually carried out under local anesthesia by numbing the area, just as is done for a routine filling. Some people require additional sedation or anti-anxiety medication, which can either be administered orally (by mouth) or by intravenously (through a vein) via injection.

When the area has been completely numbed, an incision will be made in your gum to expose the bone that used to contain your missing tooth or teeth. A small opening will be made in the bone to reveal the membrane that lines the sinus. This membrane will be raised and the space beneath it will be filled with bone grafting material. The gum is then stitched back up. In some cases, the implant(s) can be placed directly into the grafting material before the gum is closed, eliminating the need for a second surgical procedure later on to place the implant. Often, however, the surgical site is allowed to heal for approximately 6-7 months before an implant is placed.

What to Expect After Sinus Surgery

You may experience moderate swelling and some minor discomfort that generally lasts a few days — about the same as having an upper impacted wisdom tooth removed. Sometimes a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (prescription or over-the-counter) is recommended to help minimize this. A course of antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent infection. If the sinus membrane becomes a bit inflamed, leading to a feeling of minor congestion, a decongestant can be helpful. If you suffer from seasonal allergies, make sure to schedule your surgery for a time when this will not be an issue.

Ridge Augmentation

If you lose one or more permanent teeth, an indentation may result in the gums and jawbone where the tooth used to be. When no longer holding a tooth in place, the jawbone recedes and the resulting indentation looks unnatural. Ridge augmentation is a procedure that can recapture the natural contour of the gums and jaw. A new tooth can then be created that is natural looking and complements your smile.