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Cleft Lip and Palate


The fourth most common birth defect in the United States, cleft lip and cleft palate affect one in every 700 newborns each year. A cleft lip is a separation of the two sides of the lip, usually involving the bones of the upper jaw, upper gum, or both. A cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth in which the two sides of the palate did not fuse or join together properly. Cleft lip and cleft palate can occur on one side or both sides.

Because cleft lip and cleft palate are apparent at birth, most people have surgery to correct the defect early in life. However, follow-up surgery often is necessary later on to treat any deformities that still exist after initial treatment. These may include deformities of the lip and nose, as well as abnormalities of the teeth and jaw.

Our approach to cleft lip and palate

UCSF's oral and maxillofacial (jaw and face) surgeons are experts in evaluating and treating problems of the teeth and jaw resulting from a cleft lip or palate. With training in both surgery and dentistry, our specialists work with adult patients to identify the approach that best suits individual needs. The treatment plan may include bone grafting to provide stability for the lip, nose and mouth while improving cosmetic appearance. We also offer a range of dental implant systems and procedures.

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Signs & symptoms

Symptoms of cleft lip and palate may include:

  • Crooked, poorly shaped or missing teeth
  • Misalignment of teeth and jaw
  • Deformities of the upper jaw (maxilla)
  • Speech problems
  • Unrepaired oronasal fistulae, which is a hole between the mouth and nose cavity
  • Alveolar clefts, which are defects in the bone that supports the teeth


Before any treatment is planned, you will meet with an oral and maxillofacial surgeon for a complete medical evaluation. During this visit, your surgeon will start by asking about your medical history and conducting a thorough physical and dental examination, noting any problems you are experiencing due to your cleft lip or palate.

After this evaluation, your surgeon will discuss the treatment options that best meet your individual needs.


Although bone grafting is most frequently performed on children under the age of 10, adults also can benefit from the procedure. Bone grafting in the dental ridge of the upper jaw, called the maxilla, is now the standard treatment for patients with facial clefts. The procedure involves taking a small amount of bone from one place — usually the hip, head, ribs or leg — and placing it in the area of the cleft near the teeth.

Bone grafting is performed to:

  • Provide support for the lip and nose and to improve symmetry
  • Form a continuous upper gum ridge, creating a more natural appearance and adding stability to the ridge
  • Improve the stability of the front part of the roof of the mouth, if a cleft on both sides is present

Once the bone graft has been placed, any missing teeth in the area of the graft may be replaced. This is achieved by moving adjacent teeth into the bone graft; inserting a prosthetic replacement, also called a dental bridge; or inserting an osseointegrated implant.

Surgical closure of oronasal fistulae

An oronasal fistulae is a hole between the mouth and nose cavity. In some cases, the fistulae has been left intentionally after initial repair of the cleft palate or developed due to poor healing in this area. Fistulae can be problematic in that they allow substances in the mouth, such as liquids and foods, to enter into the nose cavity, resulting in infection. In rare cases, when fistulae become very large, they create speech problems.

Most fistulae can be surgically closed using local tissue from the roof of the mouth, the tongue or the inside cheek. After surgery, a short stay in the hospital may be required, as well as adhering to dietary restrictions for two to three weeks.

Osseointegrated implants

Many people with cleft lip and palate have one or more missing teeth. In addition, their teeth adjacent to the cleft often have a deficiency of supporting bone. In these instances, osseointegrated implants are the most effective approach for replacing missing teeth.

The dental implants are small titanium "fixtures" that take the place of the natural root of the tooth. Your surgeon will gently implant them into your bone, using local anesthesia. These very tiny titanium roots will then bond or integrate with your bone, more securely than natural root would. These implants serve as an "anchor" for permanent artificial teeth, which are built and custom designed to aesthetically suit your facial features by a prosthodontist — a dentist who specializes in the restoration and replacement of teeth. The surgery and subsequent placement of the artificial teeth requires the coordinated efforts of your oral and maxillofacial surgeon, orthodontist and prosthodontist.

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.

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