What is a Crown?

A crown is a type of dental restoration which completely caps or encircles a tooth or dental implant. Crowns are often needed when a large cavity threatens the ongoing health of a tooth. They are typically bonded to the tooth using a dental cement. Crowns can be made from many materials, which are usually fabricated using indirect methods. Crowns are often used to improve the strength or appearance of teeth.

Why Restore with a Crown?

When teeth undergo endodontic treatment, or root canal therapy, they are devitalized when the nerve and blood supply are cut off and the space which they previously filled, known as the “pulp chamber” and “root canal”, are thoroughly cleansed and filled with various materials to prevent future invasion by bacteria. Although there may very well be enough tooth structure remaining after root canal therapy is provided for a particular tooth to restore the tooth with an intracoronal restoration, this is not suggested in most teeth. The vitality of a tooth is remarkable in its ability to provide the tooth with the strength and durability it needs to function in mastication. The living tooth structure is surprisingly resilient and can sustain considerable abuse without fracturing. Consequently, after root canal therapy is performed, a tooth becomes extremely brittle and is significantly weaker than its vital neighbors.
Fractures of endodontically treated teeth increase considerably in the posterior dentition when cuspal protection is not provided by a crown. The average person can exert 150–200 lbs (70-90 kg). of muscular force on his or her posterior teeth, which is approximately nine times the amount of force that can be exerted in the anterior. If the effective posterior contact area on a restoration is 0.1 mm², over 1 million PSI of stress is placed on the restoration. Therefore, posterior teeth (i.e. molars and premolars) should in almost all situations be crowned after undergoing root canal therapy to provide for proper protection against fracture (mandibular premolars, being very similar in crown morphology to canines, may in some cases be protected with intracoronal restorations). Should an endodontically treated tooth not be properly protected, there is a chance of it succumbing to breakage from normal functional forces.

What is a Surveyed Crown?

Another situation in which a crown is the restoration of choice is when a tooth is intended as an abutment tooth for a removable partial denture, but is initially unfavorable for such a task. If the abutment teeth onto which the RPD is supposed to clasp do not possess the proper dimensions or features required, these aspects can be built into what is known as a surveyed crown.

Tooth Preparation

Preparation of a tooth for a crown involves permanently removing much of the tooth’s original structure, including portions that might still be healthy and structurally sound. All currently available materials for making crowns are not as good as healthy, natural tooth structure, so teeth should only be crowned when an oral health-care professional has evaluated the tooth and decided that the overall value of the crown will outweigh the disadvantage of needing to remove some healthy parts of the tooth. This can be a very complex evaluation to make, so different dentists (trained at different institutions, with different experiences, and trained in different methods of treatment planning and case selection) may come to different conclusions regarding treatment.
Traditionally more than one visit is required to complete crown and bridge work, and the additional time required for the procedure can be a disadvantage; the increased benefits of such a restoration, however, will generally offset these considerations.

Dimensions of Preparation

When preparing a tooth for a traditional crown, the enamel may be totally removed and the finished preparation should, thus, exist primarily in dentin. As elaborated on below, the amount of tooth structure required to be removed will depend on the material(s) being used to restore the tooth. If the tooth is to be restored with a full gold crown, the restoration need only be .5 mm in thickness (as gold is very strong), and therefore, a minimum of only .5 mm of space needs to be made for the crown to be placed. If porcelain is to be applied to the gold crown, an additional minimum of 1 mm of tooth structure needs to be removed to allow for a sufficient thickness of the porcelain to be applied, thus bringing the total tooth reduction to minimally 1.5 mm.
If there is not enough tooth structure to properly retain the traditional prosthetic crown, the tooth requires a build-up material. This can be accomplished with a pin-retained direct restoration, such as amalgam or a composite resin, or in more severe cases, may require a post and core. Should the tooth require a post and core, endodontic therapy would then be indicated, as the post descends into the devitalized root canal for added retention. If the tooth, because of its relative lack of exposed tooth structure, also requires crown lengthening, the total combined time, effort and cost of the various procedures, together with the decreased prognosis because of the combined inherent failure rates of each procedure, might make it more reasonable to have the tooth extracted and opt to have an implant placed.

Taper

The prepared tooth also needs to possess 3 to 5 degrees of taper to allow for the restoration to be properly placed on the tooth. The taper should not exceed 20 degrees. Fundamentally, there can be no undercuts on the surface of the prepared tooth, as the restoration will not be able to be removed from the die, let alone fit on the tooth (see explanation of lost-wax technique below to understand of the processes involved in crown fabrication). At the same time, too much taper will severely limit the grip that the crown has on the prepared tooth, thus contributing to failure of the restoration. Generally, 6° of taper around the entire circumference of the prepared tooth, giving a combined taper of 12° at any given sagittal section through the prepared tooth, is appropriate to both allow the crown to fit yet provide enough grip.

Longevity

Although no dental restoration lasts forever, the average lifespan of a crown is around 10 years. While this is considered comparatively favorable to direct restorations, they can actually last up to the life of the patient (50 years or more) with proper care. One reason why a 10 year lifespan is quoted is because a dentist can usually provide patients with this figure and be confident that a crown that the dental lab makes will last at least this long. Many dental insurance plans in North America will allow for a crown to be replaced after only five years.
The most important factor affecting the lifespan of any restorative is the continuing oral hygiene of the patient. Other factors are the skill of the dentist and their lab technician, the material used and appropriate treatment planning and case selection.
Full gold crowns last the longest, as they are fabricated as a single piece of gold. PFMs, or porcelain-fused-to-metal crowns possess an additional dimension in which they are prone to failure, as they incorporate brittle porcelain into their structure. Although incredibly strong in compression, porcelain is terribly fragile in tension, and fracture of the porcelain increases the risk of failure, which rises as the number of surfaces covered with porcelain is increased. A traditional PFM with occlusal porcelain (i.e. porcelain applied to the biting surface of a posterior tooth) has a 7% higher chance of failure per year than a corresponding full gold crown.
When crowns are used to restore endodontically treated teeth, they reduce the likelihood of the tooth fracturing due to the brittle devitalized nature of the tooth and provide a better seal against invading bacteria. Although the inert filling material within the root canal blocks microbial invasion of the internal tooth structure, it is actually a superior coronal seal, or marginal adaptation of the restoration in or on the crown of the tooth, which prevents reinvasion of the root canal.