You may be asking yourself, can I sue my dentist for nerve damage? The short answer is: Yes. You can sue your dentist for damaging or destroying your nerves through dental malpractice or dental negligence. A dentist should take every step possible to avoid damaging a patient’s nerves. However, dentists may fail to review oral and mandibular anatomy often enough to keep their knowledge up to speed. Additionally, dentists may fail to get proper images of the patient’s mouth prior to attempting advanced procedures. Small lapses in judgement like these can cause a patient a lifetime of hardship, pain, and suffering. In terms of dental malpractice, if the dentist's lapse in judgement constitutes a breach of the standard of care, that dentist may be liable for the patient's nerve damage.
Let’s talk about two of the nerves that are most likely to be injured in dental malpractice: the (1) Inferior Alveolar Nerve (IAN) and the (2) Lingual Nerve (LN).
The Inferior Alveolar Nerve (IAN)
Functions and Location of IAN
The IAN has both sensory and motor functions. It provides feeling to your lower teeth, your chin, and your bottom lip. It’s also essential for movement in your mouth and jaw.
The IAN is located in the mandible, specifically in the mandibular canal. In other words, it runs through the center of the jawbone.
Causes of IAN Injury
Damage to the inferior alveolar nerve is, unfortunately, a common cause of dental malpractice cases because it can be injured during a variety of dental and surgical procedures. For example, when a dental implant is placed, it can be too close to the IAN and cause pressure, which in turn damages the nerve and causes pain. Additionally, the IAN can be damaged by traumatic injections of dental anesthetics, like Septocaine. The IAN may also be severed during a surgery, like an extraction procedure. Additionaly, a dentist may damage the IAN during a root canal procedure by overfilling a canal and pushing the gutta percha material down into the inferior alveolar nerve space.
Results of IAN Damage
Damage to the IAN can be truly devastating because it can impair or affect everyday activities, including the following:
- Speech and pronunciation;
- Eating and enjoying meals;
- Kissing and activities displaying affection;
- Applying make-up;
- Shaving; and
- Drinking liquids.
As a result, the patient can suffer loss of confidence around others, loss of productivity at work, and other life altering psychological damage.
The Lingual Nerve (LN)
Functions and Location of LN
The LN is a sensory nerve that gives feeling to the bottom of the inside of your mouth and to the front two-thirds of your tongue. It also has specialized fibers that help transmit taste signals from the tongue and to the brain and vice versa. Thus, although it’s not responsible for sensing taste, the LN helps transmit taste signals to the brain.
The LN enters the mouth through both sides of your jaw in the back near your right and left wisdom teeth. At that location, it splits and runs into the tongue and the floor of the mouth under the tongue.
Causes of LN Injury
The LN, like the IAN, can be damaged during dental surgeries and dental procedures, including the following:
- Dental implant placement;
- Traumatic injections of anesthetics, like Septocaine;
- Lower wisdom tooth extraction;
- Dental drill or burr slippage during procedures on other teeth;
- Heat damage from cauterization or laser usage; and
- Any procedure involving incision, harsh chemicals, or heat in that part of the mouth.
Results of LN Damage
Lingual Nerve damage can result in a variety of symptoms, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Loss of taste;
- Slurred speech and difficult pronunciation;
- Reduced saliva production;
- Increased frequency of tongue biting;
- Loss of sensation, numbness, or tingling; and
- Odd sensations, like shocking or burning pain.
As with damage to the IAN, a patient with lingual nerve damage can lose their confidence and ability to enjoy the company of others, and the psychological trauma from LN damage can ultimately affect the patient’s job and really every aspect of the patient’s life.
Is My Nerve Damage Due to Dental Malpractice?
If a dentist breaches the standard of care in treating a patient, then that dentist's actions or inactions constitute dental malpractice. The standard of care can be thought of as the minimum level of care. It is what a minimally competent dentist should do under similar circumstances. Below are several ways a dentist may breach the standard of care in causing a patient nerve damage:
- Failing to examine or identify areas of decreased sensation or odd feelings;
- Failing to timely evaluate the patient's nerve damage;
- Failing to timely evaluate or diagnose the patient’s post-operative nerve-related complications; and
- Failing to refer the patient for treatment of nerve damage or to otherwise treat the nerve damage.