This second module for the SmilER series covers the management of common dental trauma cases seen in the emergency department (ED). What should you do with the various types of dental fractures and avulsions, how do you manage them in the ED, and what sort of follow-up should the patient receive?

Author: Richard Ngo, DMD
Editors: Cameron Lee, DMD, MD; Andrew Eyre, MD, MS-HPEd
Series Editor: Chris Nash, MD

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Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the major classifications and diagnostic criteria of dental traumatology for adult patients.
  2. Understand reimplantation of avulsed teeth, as well as splinting for adult dental-related trauma.
    • List the materials that are required to place a dental splint.
    • List some of the potential complications of splinting.
    • Understand imaging required for dental-related trauma cases.
  3. Name some of the pharmacological adjuncts to aid in recovery.
  4. Review key points to include in patient discharge instructions after dental trauma.

Part 1: History

Proper diagnosis of dental trauma in the ED begins with a thorough medical and dental history (see the Oral Examination and Local Anesthesia course).

Part 2: Examination

  • Suction and irrigate the oral cavity thoroughly.
  • Maintain the patient’s airway while assessing and removing potential aspiration risks, including significantly loose or displaced dentition.
  • Identify all fracture fragments, since they may be lodged into soft tissues or intruded into alveolar bone.
  • Hemorrhage control can be achieved with gauze and direct pressure. Escalate care to specialists if you are unable to achieve hemostasis.
  • Assess the parotid and sublingual ducts for possible lacerations. Trauma to these areas could potentially lead to sialadenitis (salivary gland inflammation).
  • Poor occlusion (bite) may be indicative of mandibular or maxillary fractures.

Part 3: Imaging

A chest x-ray should be obtained if there is concern for aspiration. Panoramic imaging is helpful to visualize the dentition and also should be assessed for mandibular fractures. For all cases requiring intervention, the provider should obtain pre- and post-procedural imaging.

The traditionally-taught Ellis classification system is falling out of favor. More recently, fractures of both primary and permanent teeth are classified as either uncomplicated or complicated fractures. A fracture is defined as complicated if it involves the pulp.

Tooth fracture classification (modified from [1])

Uncomplicated enamel fractures are fractures in the tooth that do not extend to the dental pulp. These fractures tend to be asymptomatic and do not require urgent attention. This may include infractions, also known as craze lines. An infraction is an incomplete fracture through the enamel. It is asymptomatic and does not require further treatment. In general, uncomplicated fractures of only the enamel simply require observation and follow-up with an outpatient dentist.

Uncomplicated Fractures of the Enamel-Dentin

Simple uncomplicated fractures can extend into the enamel and/or dentin, but avoid penetration to the pulp. Patients can be advised to keep tooth fragments for potential re-bonding as a temporary restoration at an outpatient dental clinic. If a tooth fragment is brought into the ED, it may be re-bonded as a temporary measure. This can be completed in the hospital by consulting the OMFS or dental services. Alternatively, this can be completed by a dentist in the outpatient setting.

Enamel-Dentin-Pulp Fractures

Enamel-dentin-pulp fractures in the tooth that result in the exposure of dental pulp to the oral cavity. Patients often complain of significant pain or sensitivity. These cases require either root canal treatment or extraction of the offending tooth by an outpatient dentist. If this is not properly performed, the patient is likely to return to the ED with an infection or worsened dental pain. If calcium hydroxide is available, this can be applied to the surface of the pulpal exposure. These patients should follow-up with an outside dentist, preferably within 1 week following discharge from the emergency department.

Complicated Dental Fracture

Complicated dental fracture involving the pulp and an uncomplicated fracture through just the enamel in the same tooth. 

Root Fractures

Root fractures are complicated fractures of the tooth root. Patients often have pain and tenderness upon percussion of the offending tooth. The coronal segment may be mobile/displaced, in which case a splint is recommended for at least 4 weeks.

If the tooth is non-mobile (fracture likely in the apical third of the root), no immediate treatment is necessary. Of note, it is possible to have a root fracture even if the visible, manipulable portion of the tooth is not mobile. An outpatient dentist must thoroughly evaluate these patients with proper imaging equipment (e.g., periapical radiographs) that are typically not available in emergency departments.

These patients should follow-up with an outside dentist, preferably within 1 week following discharge from the emergency department.

Alveolar Fractures

Alveolar fractures are complicated and involve the bone surrounding the dentition, also known as the alveolus. The hallmark of this injury is that upon manipulating a single tooth, an entire segment of teeth and bone will move simultaneously. Patients may also present with concurrent fracture or luxation injuries. OMFS consultation is recommended for these cases, because a complex arch bar placement is often necessary for proper stabilization and treatment.

Displacement classifications include concussion, subluxation, luxation, intrusion, and avulsion. Cases involving avulsion are time-sensitive and require urgent attention for the best prognosis.

Concussion

Concussion is an injury to tooth-supporting structures without displacement or mobility of the tooth. These teeth exhibit pain to percussion. Concussed teeth generally do not require emergency treatment unless the tooth becomes dark or black; these patients should follow up with an outpatient dentist for potential root canal treatment.

Subluxation

Subluxation is mobility of a tooth without significant displacement of the tooth from its original position. These cases involve injury to the tooth-supporting structures, which result in abnormal loosening without displacement. These teeth, if permanent ones, should be placed in a dental splint for at 2 two weeks.

Intrusion

Intrusion involves movement toward the root (superiorly for maxillary teeth and inferiorly for mandibular teeth). OMFS consultation is highly recommended for cases involving intrusion, as complex surgical manipulation and re-positioning may be required. Of all types of luxation injuries, intrusions are the most likely to require long-term treatment by dental specialists.

Lateral Luxation/Extrusion

Lateral luxation involves displacement of the tooth from its original position (usually anteriorly or posteriorly), and extrusion is displacement from the sock in the coronal direction. These teeth, if permanent ones, should be repositioned and placed in a dental splint for at least 2 weeks.

Lateral Luxation Diagram

Eccentric displacement of the tooth seen in lateral luxation. Displacement of the tooth anteriorly or posteriorly is often associated with alveolar wall fractures. 

Avulsion

Avulsion is the complete displacement of the tooth out from its original socket in the alveolar bone. If the patient arrives with an avulsed tooth, it is important to ask the patient how long the tooth has been avulsed. If the patient cannot be seen immediately, the avulsed tooth or teeth should be placed in saline, milk, or water (in that ordered preference).

The physician should avoid handling or wiping the root (handle by the crown only) to maintain the vitality of periodontal ligament cells and maximize chances for successful re-implantation and re-integration of the tooth.

If the tooth has been out of the socket for more than 20 minutes:

  1. Place it into saline for 30 minutes. This appears to reduce the incidence of ankylosis by improving the survivability of the cells on the root of the tooth.
  2. Then soak it in a doxycycline solution (1 mg/20 mL saline) for 5 minutes. The doxycycline helps to inhibit bacterial growth in the pulp, which reduces chances for revascularization.
  3. Attempt re-implantation. The tooth can be replanted slowly with slight, careful digital pressure.
  4. Place a dental splint.

Possible complications of re-implanted avulsed dentition include enamel hypoplasia, hypocalcification, crown/root dilaceration, and eruption pattern disruption. Long-term prognosis is negatively correlated with the length of time that the tooth has been avulsed from its socket. Once out of the socket for over an hour, it becomes unlikely that the tooth will re-integrate to the bone without complications.

Although many emergency departments do not have access to typical dental supplies, providers who do have access to these supplies should follow instructions as described below. For those who do not, you might consider having your department invest in these supplies.

Supplies

  • Curing light
  • Etching material
  • Bonding material
  • Flowable composite
  • Stainless steel wire
  • Wire cutters

Splinting Steps

  1. Etching
  2. Priming/bonding
  3. Curing of flowable composite to hold the dental wire in place

Screenshots from Dundee Dental School YouTube video (shown below).

Cut Wire to Length

1. Cut the wire and contour it to fit the dental arch

Etch the teeth

2. Etch the surfaces to be bonded with flowable composite to create the proper porosity necessary for bonding. After 30 second, the teeth should be irrigated thoroughly with saline.

Apply bonding agent

3. Apply bonding agent to the previously etched surfaces

Cure the bonding agent

4. Cure the bonding agent for 30 seconds. The chemical reaction within the bonding agent is initiated by blue light. Be sure not to look directly into the light as it can damage the retina.

Position the composite and wire in the desired location

5. Apply the flowable composite to the mobile tooth and at least 2 adjacent teeth flanking the mobile tooth. Make sure you splint the teeth their ideal location (where it looks most natural). Cure for 30 seconds to finalize the splint. A post-procedure panoramic radiograph should be obtained if available at your institution. 

Video Summary of Splinting Steps

Not every hospital has access to high-quality dental equipment, and your emergency department may not have the necessary supplies to create a composite and wire splint. In that case, you’re still in luck! Check out this ALiEM Trick of the Trade by Dr. Hans Rosenberg and published in Annals of Emergency Medicine about using equipment that you will have in your ED to fashion a temporary splint. All you need are an N95 mask and tissue glue adhesive.

Close up repair dental avulsion

Dentist Follow-Up Care

Following splinting of dental trauma, the dentition may or may not be salvageable in the long term. However, the patient must follow-up with a dentist as soon as possible for a more thorough dental examination and long-term care. Although dentition may appear to be stable on physical examination and imaging in the ED, providers should inform patients of the possibility that dental fractures may not be visible without more thorough imaging at an outpatient dental clinic, ideally within a 2-week timeframe or sooner.

Pain Management

Regarding postoperative pain management, ibuprofen can be prescribed in combination with acetaminophen. The patient will experience peak swelling and inflammation roughly 48 hours after the procedure. The patient should be instructed to ice the area to minimize swelling without wetting the splint for the first 24 hours following discharge.

Oral Hygiene

Chlorhexidine 0.12% 15 mL can be used to rinse the mouth twice daily for 1 week. Using chlorhexidine for longer than this is not recommended as staining of the dentition may occur.

Diet

The patient should be placed on a soft diet and avoid chewing in the area of the splint until further instruction by their dentist.

No Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not generally recommended following dental trauma except for avulsion injuries.

References

  1. Hupp J, Ellis E, Tucker M. Contemporary Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Elsevier; 2019.
  2. Berman L, Blanco L, Cohen S. A Clinical Guide to Dental Traumatology. Mosby; 2006.
  3. Kademani D, Tiwana P. Atlas of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Saunders; 2015.
  4. Dundee Dental School. Composite and Wire Splint. Part1: Placement. YouTube; 2018.

Richard Ngo, DMD

Richard Ngo, DMD

Richard Ngo, DMD
Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Resident
Massachusetts General Hospital
Richard Ngo, DMD

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Cameron Lee, DMD, MD

Cameron Lee, DMD, MD

Cameron Lee, DMD, MD
Chief Resident in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
Massachusetts General Hospital
Cameron Lee, DMD, MD

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Andrew Eyre, MD, MS-HPEd

Andrew Eyre, MD, MS-HPEd

Andrew Eyre, MD, MS-HPEd
Assistant Program Director, Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency
Director of External Programs, STRATUS Center for Medical Simulation
Attending Emergency Physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Andrew Eyre, MD, MS-HPEd

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Chris Nash, MD

Chris Nash, MD

Chris Nash, MD
Medical Education Fellow and Emergency Physician
Massachusetts General Hospital
Chris Nash, MD

@ChrisNashMD

Resident @EMRES_MGHBWH. @DukeU + @NUFeinbergMed alum, @HGSE student. Assoc Director of Growth @ALiEMteam. Chief Tech Officer #ALiEMU. Tweets≠Medical Advice
Chris Nash, MD

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