Back teeth, or molars, play an important role in our health, wellness and even our appearance. Yet many of us are likely to pay more time and attention to maintaining our front teeth, because they are readily visible to those whom we’d like to impress with a nice white smile. Understanding the true value of our molars and the consequences of living without them will encourage us to take better care of all of our teeth now and reap the benefits for a lifetime.

Let us start with the form and function of our front teeth versus those in back. Our front teeth are called incisors and they are designed to cut and tear food as we bite off (hopefully not any more than) what we are about to chew. They are wide, relatively thin and their roots are single conical structures. Molars are blunt with broad, uneven surfaces. They have two, three or even four roots that anchor them tightly in our mouths. This is necessary for the forces they endure every day as they grind up our food into smaller pieces, making it easier for us to swallow and digest each bite.

If we think about it, we notice that our first chewing motion with our molars is cautious. It’s an information gathering bite to determine the consistency of the food. Is it crunchy? Soft? Should it be chewed at all or allowed to melt in our mouths? Our tongue steps in then (the cheeks help, too) and pushes the food toward the molars, guiding it first to be chewed and then toward the throat to be swallowed.

What would happen if we forced our thin, single-root incisors to chew all of our food? Incisors are not meant to occlude much, meaning the upper and lower front teeth aren’t built to withstand repeated edge-to-edge contact. In a normal resting position, the upper incisors rest just in front of the lower incisors. If we chewed all of our food with our incisors, we would notice very quickly that they are inefficient for breaking up food, and the wear and tear would damage the tooth and surrounding bone, causing the roots to become loose. The lack of molars would undeniably limit the variety of food in our diet, leading to any number of other nutrition-related problems. Sadly, this is very common in elderly patients who choose not to replace molars and to whom a balanced diet is so important.

Molars also serve as space maintainers, horizontally and vertically. Horizontally, if we lose our molars, neighboring teeth will drift slowly into the vacant space and our front teeth will eventually spread, leaving noticeable gaps between them. Vertically, the space maintenance of molars contributes significantly to the shape of our face. Without molars, what’s to stop our lower jaw from bumping into our upper jaw? Gums bumping into gums might not sound uncomfortable, but consider the years that sunken cheekbones and a collapsed jaw (not to mention the wrinkles) will add to our appearance. This can be worsened by the gradual deterioration of our jaw bones that occurs without the bone-anchoring roots of teeth. And don’t forget about our remaining front teeth. Think of door stops preventing door knobs from knocking holes in our walls. Allowing our incisors to clash into each other without the molars as vertical “stops” can damage the front teeth, and the pressure can cause them to become loose and fall out.

Taking care of our natural molars is the best way to prevent their loss, and restoring damaged molars is always preferable to having them pulled or replaced. When the teeth we were born with are missing or cannot be restored, there are many options for molar replacement. Ask your dentist about implants, crowns, bridges and dentures. These treatments can be used alone or combined in exciting new ways to provide stable, affordable and attractive results.

Now that we’ve brushed up on the benefits of molars, let’s go brush and floss them some more, and be sure to visit our dentist regularly for complete oral care. We now know that taking good care of our back teeth allows us to maintain balanced nutrition, a youthful appearance, and yes, a beautiful smile that everyone can see. Leaving our molars out of sight and out of mind (or out of mouth!) can lead to many undesirable short and long term results.

–Dr. Jay M. Feuer DDS, MAGD