OBJECTIVES: Clinical data on survival rates reveal that all-ceramic dental prostheses are susceptible to fracture from repetitive occlusal loading. The objective of this review is to examine the underlying mechanisms of fatigue in current and future dental ceramics. DATA/SOURCES: The nature of various fatigue modes is elucidated using fracture test data on ceramic layer specimens from the dental and biomechanics literature. CONCLUSIONS: Failure modes can change over a lifetime, depending on restoration geometry, loading conditions and material properties. Modes that operate in single-cycle loading may be dominated by alternative modes in multi-cycle loading. While post-mortem examination of failed prostheses can determine the sources of certain fractures, the evolution of these fractures en route to failure remains poorly understood. Whereas it is commonly held that loss of load-bearing capacity of dental ceramics in repetitive loading is attributable to chemically assisted 'slow crack growth' in the presence of water, we demonstrate the existence of more deleterious fatigue mechanisms, mechanical rather than chemical in nature. Neglecting to account for mechanical fatigue can lead to gross overestimates in predicted survival rates. CLINICAL SIGNIFICANCE: Strategies for prolonging the clinical lifetimes of ceramic restorations are proposed based on a crack-containment philosophy.