The teeth are a group of hard organs found in the oral cavity. We use teeth to masticate (or chew) food into tiny pieces. They also provide shape to the mouth and face and are important components in producing speech.
A tooth can be divided into two main parts: the crown and root. Found above the gum line, the crown is the enlarged region of the tooth involved in chewing. Like an actual crown, the crown of a tooth has many ridges on its top surface to aid in the chewing of food. Below the gum line is the region of the tooth called the root, which anchors the tooth into a bony socket known as an alveolus. Roots are tapered structures resembling the roots of plants, and each tooth may have between one to three roots. The exterior surface of the root is covered in a bone-like mixture of calcium and collagen fibers known as cementum. Cementum provides grip for the periodontal ligaments that anchor the root to the surrounding alveolus.
Each tooth is an organ consisting of three layers: the pulp, dentin, and enamel.
- The pulp of the tooth is a vascular region of soft connective tissues in the middle of the tooth. Tiny blood vessels and nerve fibers enter the pulp through small holes in the tip of the roots to support the hard outer structures. Stem cells known as odontoblasts form the dentin of the tooth at the edge of the pulp.
- Surrounding the pulp is the dentin, a tough, mineralized layer of tissue. Dentin is much harder than the pulp due to the presence of collagen fibers and hydroxylapatite, a calcium phosphate mineral that is one of the strongest materials found in nature. The structure of the dentin layer is very porous, allowing nutrients and materials produced in the pulp to spread through the tooth.
- The enamel — the white, outer layer of the crown — forms an extremely hard, nonporous cap over the dentin. Enamel is the hardest substance in the body and is made almost exclusively of hydroxylapatite.
Teeth are classified into four major groups: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars.
- Incisors are chisel-shaped teeth found in the front of the mouth and have a flat apical surface for cutting food into smaller bits.
- Canine teeth, also known as cuspids, are sharply pointed, cone-shaped teeth that are used for ripping tough material like meat. They flank the incisors on both sides.
- Premolars (bicuspids) and molars are large, flat-surfaced teeth found in the back of the mouth. Peaks and valleys on the flat apical surface of premolars and molars are used for chewing and grinding food into tiny pieces.
Babies are born without teeth, but grow a temporary set of twenty deciduous teeth (eight incisors, four canines, and eight molars) between the ages of six months and three years. Baby teeth fill the child’s tiny jaws and allow the child to chew food while larger, stronger adult teeth develop inside the mandible and maxilla bones. At about six years of age the deciduous teeth are slowly shed one at a time and replaced by permanent adult teeth.
Adult teeth develop while hidden within the maxilla and mandible after the deciduous teeth have erupted. When an adult tooth erupts, it triggers the roots of the deciduous tooth above it to atrophy. This causes the baby tooth to become loose and eventually fall out. The new permanent tooth slowly pushes up through the gums to replace the baby tooth. Eventually, a total of thirty-two permanent adult teeth form and erupt. The adult teeth are arranged in both the upper and lower jaws from the midline of the mouth as follows: central incisor, lateral incisor, canine (cuspid), first premolar (bicuspid), second premolar, first molar, second molar, and third molar.
The first twenty-eight adult teeth are fully erupted by the age of eleven to thirteen with the third molars, known as wisdom teeth, erupting in the back of the jaw several years later in early adulthood. Sometimes the wisdom teeth become impacted when they grow and become wedged at an abnormal position in the jaws and fail to erupt. In some cases there is not enough room in the jaw to accommodate a third set of molars. In both cases the wisdom teeth are surgically removed, as they are not needed to properly chew food.
Mastication, or chewing, is the main function of the teeth. The teeth are aligned in the jaws so that the peaks of one tooth align with the valleys of its counterpart on the other jaw. Every bite forces food into the interface of the teeth to be chopped, while lateral motion of the jaw is used to grind food in the premolars and molars.
Tooth decay and cavities are important health concerns related to the teeth. The enamel that covers the crown in each tooth can be broken down by acids produced by bacteria that live in the mouth and assist in digestion of small bits of food. This process of enamel erosion by acids is called decay. To prevent decay, good oral hygiene, consisting of daily brushing and flossing, is necessary. Decay can eventually lead to cavities, also known as dental caries, where holes appear in the enamel and expose the dentin. Cavities require medical intervention to prevent their growth, usually resulting in the removal of the affected tissue and the filling of the cavity with a hard material to restore the strength and function of the tooth.