What Is Ameloblastoma?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 17, 2022
3 min read

Ameloblastoma is a rare kind of tumor that starts in your jaw, often near your wisdom teeth or molars. It's made from cells that form the enamel that protects your teeth.

The tumor can cause pain or swelling and can change the look of your face. If it goes untreated for a long time, it may become cancerous and spread to your lymph nodes or lungs.

Anyone can get one of these growths, but they're most often seen in adults ages 30 to 60. In the United States, between 300 and 600 cases are diagnosed every year.

The tumors usually grow slowly over many months or even years. For a while, the only symptom may be swelling in the back of your jaw. You also might have tooth or jaw pain.

Some people don't have any symptoms. It's found when they have an imaging scan done for some other reason.

Occasionally, ameloblastomas grow quickly and painfully. This can uproot and move your teeth. They also can spread to your nose, eye socket, or skull.

In rare cases, they can grow so large that they block your airway, make it difficult to open and close your mouth, or affect how your body takes in nutrients from food.

Doctors aren't sure what causes ameloblastomas or why certain people get them. They do know they're more common in men than in women, and certain genes seem to play a role.

An injury to your jaw or an infection in your mouth also might raise your risk. And scientists think some viruses or a lack of protein or minerals in your diet may be linked to them as well.

Dentists often spot these tumors on X-rays -- they can look like soap bubbles on film. They also can be diagnosed with the following:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): Powerful magnets and radio waves are used to make images of your mouth.
  • CT (computerized tomography) scan: Several X-rays are taken from different angles and put together to show more detailed information.

Your doctor may want to take a small sample of tissue to look at under a microscope. To take the sample, they'll use a needle or make a small cut. This is called a biopsy, and it can confirm it's an ameloblastoma and help determine how fast it's growing.

Drugs and radiation don't seem to have much effect on most non-cancerous ameloblastomas, so they're usually treated with surgery. To make sure the tumor cells don't grow back, your doctor will take out the tumor and some of the healthy tissue around it.

Part of your jaw may need to be removed, as well as some of the arteries and nerves that affect your face. Your doctor will recommend surgery to re-create your jaw using bone from somewhere else in your body or artificial bone. You also may need rehabilitation to learn how to smile and chew again.

After surgery, you'll have a CT scan to make sure the tumor is gone. You should have follow-up scans for the next 5 years or so to make sure it's not growing back.

If a tumor does come back, it's more likely to become cancer. If it spreads to other parts of your body, radiation is usually recommended to slow or stop its growth.

Scientists hope to find new treatments that can shrink these tumors without surgery. They're testing drugs that fight cancers linked to similar problem genes to see if they have the same effects on ameloblastomas.