What is a titanium implant?

Titanium is a strong and light silver-gray metal that is found quite frequently in igneous rocks and geological deposits. Titanium has a number of impressive properties, including the ability to bond to human bone in a process called biointegration or osseointegration . Because of this, and the fact that the body will not reject it, this metal can be used for various medical and dental purposes. Hip and knee replacements, for example, often involve the use of a titanium implant.

The unique properties of titanium make it especially suitable for medical applications. It is very strong for its weight, virtually non-magnetic, and fully compatible with the human body. This is very remarkable, because metallic elements are not found in many places in the human body. Where metals exist, they are almost always there as parts of other molecules and complexes rather than in elemental form. Such is the case with iron, which binds with oxygen in the bloodstream.

Around one million patients worldwide are treated each year to replace damaged or arthritic hips and knees. The range of titanium alloys available allows implant designers to tailor the material to the desired application. A titanium implant of the correct alloy does not corrode once inside the body, as an implant made of any other metal would. It is one of the few materials that naturally meets all the requirements for implantation in the human body.

An additional advantage that titanium offers is that there are ways to treat the surface of a titanium implant to further encourage osseointegration. For example, roughening the implant surface and treating it with a bioactive agent such as hydroxyapatite will stimulate osseointegration and also increase the life of the implant. This is of particular importance for younger patients, and also for older patients, as life expectancies increase.

The field of dentistry is increasingly used also for titanium implants. A titanium implant for dental use will generally consist of a screw that resembles the root of a tooth and has a smooth or rough surface. The "root" is placed in the jawbone and the osseointegration process is allowed to take place over several weeks or months. At the appropriate time, a dentist will place a crown on the root. Because the root is already integrated, the patient can immediately use the new implant as if it were a natural tooth.

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