■ Duties and responsibilities:

Expectations of physicians in practice

How to reduce the risks of procedure-based dental injury

An endotracheal tube, a laryngoscope, and a syringe

4 minutes

Published: May 2010 /
Revised: January 2023

The information in this article was correct at the time of publishing

Significant advances and improvements have been made in the equipment used for airway management, from specialized laryngeal masks to fibre-optic scopes. Despite these advances, dental injuries continue to occur – likely because an increasing number of endoscopic and other procedures are performed through the mouth. As the following cases illustrate, dental injury can arise from any of these procedures. However, there are steps physicians can take to reduce the risk.

Case examples

Capped tooth displaced

A patient reported a capped upper middle incisor on the preoperative questionnaire. Following surgery under general anesthesia, the capped tooth was found to be displaced. A small claims court action was initiated, claiming the costs for dental repair. The anesthesiologist admitted that he had not discussed the risks of dental injury with the patient. A settlement was paid to the patient by the CMPA on behalf of the anesthesiologist.

Incisor lost

A patient with poor dentition underwent general anesthesia for a basket extraction of stones in the ureter. In the recovery area, the patient spat his incisor out. He sued the anesthesiologist, claiming the loss of the tooth was due to negligence.

The anesthesiologist's documentation did not demonstrate an adequate discussion of the risks of dental injury, especially in light of the patient's known dental problems. A settlement was paid to the patient by the CMPA on behalf of the anesthesiologist.

Upper incisor chipped

An anesthesiologist assessed the airway of a patient before surgery. The patient was classified as a Mallampati I and was noted to have good dentition. The anesthesiologist explained the need for endotracheal intubation and the risk of dental damage.

The patient was induced and intubation attempted. Unexpected difficulty was experienced. After a second attempt at intubation with a GlideScope AVL, the surgeon stated he heard a cracking sound. The anesthesiologist examined the teeth and noted a chip of the left upper incisor. After the surgery, he appropriately disclosed this injury to the patient.

The patient initiated a small claims court action. The judge ruled the anesthesiologist had informed the patient of the possibility of tooth damage, the patient had given informed consent, and the anesthesiologist was not negligent.

Risk management considerations

An analysis of CMPA cases reveals most medico-legal difficulties related to dental injury involved patients who had pre-existing dental conditions including bridges, capped teeth, dentures, poor dentition, or periodontal disease.

Physicians should make the following considerations to manage risk:

  • Have you done or reviewed the pre-anesthetic history and examination?
  • Have you done an appropriate airway assessment and documented it?
  • Do you believe it is likely to be a difficult intubation?
  • Have you identified vulnerable teeth?
  • Have you or another healthcare provider discussed the risk of dental injury with the patient? Have you or another healthcare provider documented this risk as part of the informed consent discussion?

If a dental injury occurs

If damage to teeth occurs as a consequence of a medical procedure, physicians need to disclose this to the patient. The discussion could include the following:

  • an expression of regret for the dental damage
  • precautions that were taken to avoid this complication
  • an explanation of what happened

A meeting with the patient in which the physician is not perceived to be dismissive or unsympathetic can go a long way toward resolving any concerns the patient may have about their dental injury.

If dental treatment is required to repair the injury, the physician should generally refrain from offering or committing to pay the costs of this treatment without first seeking advice from the CMPA. Among other things, it is possible that any voluntary payment made by the physician in relation to the patient’s dental treatment may have to be reported on hospital and medical regulatory authority (College) applications and renewals, even if no complaint or legal action has been initiated or threatened.

The bottom line

Dental damage is a risk of any procedure where instruments are inserted into the mouth. As the urgency of the situation permits, you can take several steps to reduce the risks to patients and yourself.

  • Examine the mouth before airway management.
  • Whenever possible, discuss with your patient any conditions they may have that would increase the risk of dental injury, and document this discussion.
  • If dental injury occurs, disclose this to the patient, and if the patient requires dental treatment, seek advice from the CMPA.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this learning material is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific professional medical or legal advice, nor to constitute a "standard of care" for Canadian healthcare professionals. The use of CMPA learning resources is subject to the foregoing as well as the CMPA's Terms of Use.