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Medical Malpractice Newsletter

Negligent Dental Work Can Result in Nerve Damage

Dentists and oral surgeons are expected to provide a standard of care that other competent and reasonable dentists and oral surgeons would provide under the same or like circumstances. When they fail to do so, they may be held liable for damages resulting from their treatment. One injury that may result from negligent dental treatment is nerve damage.

Nerve Injuries as a Result of Dental Work

Common dental procedures include drilling and filling of cavities, root canal work, tooth extraction and implants. Most procedures involve work conducted in close proximity to nerves and the use of a local anesthetic by injection. Two nerves commonly affected by dental work (either by the work itself or the local anesthesia injection) include:

  1. Lingual nerve – affecting the tongue and inner mucous glands of the mouth
  2. Inferior alveolar nerve – affecting the lips, chin and lower jaw

Symptoms of Nerve Damage

The following conditions may indicate damage to the lingual and/or inferior alveolar nerve, depending on where the symptoms occur:

  • Partial or total numbness or tingling (loss of taste in the tongue)
  • Pain or burning
  • Speech impairment
  • Drooling

Treatment of Nerve Damage

If the dentist or surgeon knows that a nerve has been severed, the patient should be immediately referred for surgical repair. The above symptoms typically appear after anesthesia wears off and often disappear over time. However, if they do not improve within six to eight weeks, a professional with expertise in nerve repair should be consulted.

Both lingual nerve and inferior alveolar nerve damage can usually be remedied if steps are taken in time, although better success rates are seen with inferior alveolar nerve damage treatment. Seventy percent of injured patients who receive timely surgical repairs, made within ten to twelve weeks of the damage, can be expected to recover 75% of normal sensation. However, due to the poor success rate, attempting surgical repair more than nine months after the date of injury is rarely recommended

Informed Consent

Because these nerves are so close in proximity to the area where dental work is done, proving that the dentist acted negligently in damaging the nerve may be difficult. However, all states recognize that health care professionals have a duty to procure the “informed consent” of the patient before any treatment or procedure is performed. As such, the health care professional has a duty to inform and explain known and potential benefits and material risks of a proposed treatment or procedure, as well as any alternative procedures. The patient must then grant consent to the treatment or procedure (written consent is sometimes required).

This duty, separate from the duty of care, may be used to establish the liability of a health care professional, such as a dentist, even where negligence in performing the procedure or treatment cannot be shown.

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