In the future, could small cavities be detected early and filled without anesthesia, and with only the minimum removal of tooth material? Will routine dental procedures be performed with patients noticing no vibration or pressure? Will the piercing whine of a dental drill be a sound that's heard in dental offices no more? The answer may well be yes — in fact, it's happening right now with air abrasion technology.
The air abrasion instrument is a handheld tool that dentists use for a variety of purposes. A bit like a mini-sandblaster, it uses compressed air (or another gas) to produce a fine stream of abrasive particles that can be precisely aimed. The small, high-speed particles (often silica or aluminum oxide) remove tiny bits of material in the decayed portion of the tooth; the debris is then whisked away through a suction tube.
Sound futuristic? It is, but it's not exactly new: Air abrasion instruments were first developed in the 1940's, but recent advances in high-volume suction and improved dental restoration materials have given the process a renewed appeal. Some of the uses for air abrasion tools include: removing dental caries (cavities) and filling them with composite (tooth-colored) material; preparing teeth for bonding, veneering or other procedures; and removing stains or even repairing small defects in teeth.
The tiny abrasive particles (.002” or less in diameter) remove only minute amounts of tooth structure, making a drill seem coarse by comparison. The air pressure, flow rate, nozzle diameter, and other settings on the instrument can be accurately controlled to produce the precise amount of abrasion needed. The result is a minimally-invasive method of removing decayed or unwanted tooth material.
Even though powerful suction is used to remove spent abrasive and debris, it's still necessary for everyone to wear protective eyewear as a precaution. A rubber dam (shield) is also generally used to keep abrasive particles from affecting other teeth or getting into areas of the mouth where they don't belong. Nearby teeth and gums can also be coated with a protective resin if needed.
Because it doesn't require a whirring drill, air abrasion generates no pressure or vibration and makes very little noise. It can eliminate the need for anesthesia, especially if the cavity isn't deep. It reduces the chance of damaging the tooth during a procedure, and it leaves more healthy tooth material behind. This makes it ideal for children or others who are sensitive to dental discomfort. In fact, it's perfect for treating tiny cavities that have been detected by laser diagnosis (cavities that aren't big enough to be seen on an X-ray), and sealing them up before they become bigger problems.
Minimally-invasive procedures are where air abrasion truly shines. Because it's a relatively fine-scale instrument, it isn't suitable for treating deep cavities or removing old metal fillings. However, as a high-tech tool for performing many preventive and restorative dental procedures, it offers some unique benefits to both dentist and patient. And someday, it just might make the dental drill obsolete.
If you've ever had needle phobia, you might like to learn about a new technology referred to as an “anesthesia wand,” which is a computer-controlled dental-injection tool. In fact, some people feel it is more of a “magic” wand because it doesn't look like a typical injection and it works even better by making the entire process virtually painless.
Your anesthesia will be delivered through a syringe-free wand or pen-like device that is connected to a computer. Before the tiny needle attached to the wand is inserted, the computer delivers a small amount of anesthetic so that the insertion site starts going numb before the needle enters the skin.
Once the needle is in place, the computer delivers an accurate, consistent amount of anesthesia so that you remain comfortable — typically below the threshold of pain. The computer's microprocessor automatically adjusts the injection pressure for different tissue densities, maintaining a constant, comfortable flow of anesthesia. This is important because the culprit with most injection anxiety is discomfort from anesthetic being injected too quickly, not from the needle entering the skin.
In the early 20th century, not long after X-rays were discovered, medical professionals recognized their value as diagnostic tools: They could clearly reveal structures hidden inside the body without the need for risky surgery. At the dawn of the 21st century, a revolutionary new technology has entered the diagnostic arena. Today, Cone Beam Computed Tomography (CBCT) promises to change the way many dental problems are diagnosed and treated.
Cone Beam CT has some similarities with conventional X-rays, and also with the standard CT scans you would get in a hospital setting. But it's a quantum leap forward in technology and diagnostic precision. For the dentist, it offers the ability to visualize intricate structures inside the mouth, such as root canals, nerves and sinuses (air-filled spaces) in the jaw — in three dimensions — without surgery. For the patient, it can reduce the need for invasive procedures, shorten treatment time and offer the chance for a better outcome.
The detailed diagnostic images that CBCT provides have made it an essential tool in many dental specialties. But, as with any diagnostic tool that uses radiation, the medical benefits offered must be weighed against the (small) potential risks of the procedure.
X-rays, like visible light, are a form of energy on the electromagnetic spectrum. Just as light makes an image on photographic film (or a digital camera sensor), X-rays can also form an image. The difference is that energetic X-rays can penetrate bone and soft tissue, and reveal its hidden structure by their varying degrees of absorption; in other words, they form a grayscale picture of what's underneath the surface. But conventional X-rays are limited: Like a still-life picture, they show only one perspective on the scene.
Now imagine a “flip book” — the kind of small book made up of a series of pictures, each slightly different. When you rapidly page through it, you may see (for example) an animated cartoon or a still subject from different perspectives. If you could put together a flip book made from a series of X-ray “slices” of the same subject, taken at slightly different angles, you would be able to create an “animation” of the X-rays. And from there, it's only one more step to making a 3-D model.
That's exactly what CBCT scanners do. Using a rotating imaging device that moves around the patient's head, the scanner records between 150 and 600 different X-ray views in under a minute. Then, a powerful computer processes the information and creates a virtual model of the area under study. When it's done, the model appears as a three-dimensional image on a computer screen: It can be rotated from side to side or up and down, examined in greater or less detail, and manipulated in any number of ways — all without the patient feeling any discomfort... or even being present.
The ability to see fine anatomical structures in 3-D has proven invaluable in treating conditions in many areas of dentistry.
Each patient's situation is different and must be carefully considered by a clinical professional before any test or procedure is performed. While CBCT delivers a smaller dose of radiation (X-rays) than many other diagnostic tests, it still carries a small risk — particularly for younger patients or those with other health problems. As is the case for any medical procedure, all risks, benefits and alternatives are taken into account before the procedure is recommended.
For years, whenever you needed a dental crown (cap), your dentist had to make molds of your teeth which required taking an impression of your teeth. A tray filled with a goopy, putty-like material was used so that a three-dimensional model of the prepared tooth could be created. Using this mold, a dental lab could custom-craft the new crown.
However, as we journey further into the technology-driven 21st century, this traditional methodology is being replaced with virtual models — made using small, handheld “wands” that employ a digital camera and some reflective dust.
The initial phase of restoration, preparing the tooth surface, remains virtually the same. First, any dental decay must be removed, and the remaining tooth must be shaped so that a crown or filling can be fitted properly. This will allow the tooth to be restored to its original shape, look, and function. Next, the area is lightly dusted with a reflective material (not a goopy impression material) so that multiple images of your tooth's surface can be recorded with a small scanning wand. Later, the computer component is connected to the scanning wand and these separate images are combined into a computer-generated 3D image.
This remarkable tool uses blue wavelength light to precisely capture the unique nooks and crannies of your tooth's surface and make a highly accurate 3D digital model. It makes it possible to instantaneously examine your tooth, and your bite. It's possible to identify any additional prep work required for new crowns, veneers and fillings right then and there; to implement any needed changes; and to rescan the tooth to create a new series of images and 3D model.
Once the image capture and prep work are satisfactory, your images are sent on to the lab for fabrication. This technique makes it possible to create a crown or a filling that can often be completed during a single office visit.
It's almost impossible to imagine the practice of dentistry without x-ray technology. Radiographs (x-ray pictures) allow dentists to diagnose and treat problems not yet visible to the naked eye, including early tooth decay, gum disease, abscesses and abnormal growths. There is no question that since x-rays first became available a century ago, this diagnostic tool has prevented untold suffering and saved countless teeth. Now, state-of-the-art digital x-rays have made the technology even safer and more beneficial.
Digital x-ray technology uses a small electronic sensor placed in the mouth to capture an image, which can be called up instantly on a computer screen. When digital x-rays first became available about 20 years ago, they immediately offered a host of advantages over traditional x-ray films, which require chemical processing. Most importantly, they cut the amount of radiation exposure to the dental patient by as much as 90%. While faster x-ray films have been developed over the years that require less exposure, making that difference less dramatic, a digital x-ray still offers the lowest radiation dose possible.
Besides minimizing radiation exposure, digital x-rays offer numerous advantages to dentists and patients alike. These include:
While digital technology has minimized the health risks of x-rays, it has not entirely eliminated it. X-rays are a type of radiation used to penetrate the tissues of the body to create an image. In doing so, there is always a slight possibility of causing changes at the cellular level that might lead to future disease. Of course, there are sources of radiation present in the daily environment — the sun, for example — that can also cause disease. It's important to note that the chance of this happening is thought to be cumulative and not based on a single exposure. Still, x-rays are not considered risk-free regardless of how technology reduces your exposure. That's why dentists will only use them when the benefit of obtaining better diagnostic information outweighs the procedure's small risk. This is particularly true of computed tomography or CT scans, which can raise the level of exposure, yet yield a tremendous amount of information per scan. No matter which technology is being used, each case is considered individually, and your safety is always paramount. If you have questions about why an x-ray is being recommended for you, please feel free to ask.
The intra-oral camera is a valuable tool dental professionals can use to help you understand your examination, diagnosis and treatment. This small, handheld video camera is about the same size as a dental mirror (or an oversized pen) and comes with a disposable plastic sheath for contamination prevention. It is used to take actual pictures of your teeth with up to 25 times magnification and project them onto a screen for your review. It can also be used to give you a video tour of your entire mouth so that you can see things such as plaque deposits, decay, worn teeth, and broken or missing fillings. Lastly, pertinent images can be printed for your patient file for future reference — or even for you to take home.
This adage is proven true many times each day in offices equipped with an intra-oral camera. Prior to the development of this technology, some patients found it challenging to understand problems such as dental decay and periodontal disease. Now, it's possible to display, pause, and zoom in during a video examination of the problem area, so that you can see it for yourself — all in color and crystal clear.
Laser technology is becoming quite commonplace in a wide variety of areas throughout the healthcare industry; but did you know that it can now be used to detect tooth decay? Today, using a small, handheld device, it is possible to detect tooth decay that is not yet visible and would otherwise be undiagnosed by conventional methods alone.
Plus, traditional methods of detecting tooth decay are much more accurate and efficient when laser technology is included by your dentist. You can expect:
Using this noninvasive technology, your teeth are scanned to examine their structure. Laser cavity detection is based on the fact that healthy tooth structure reflects light or “fluoresces,” differently than does decayed tooth structure. Healthy teeth will have little-to-no fluorescence while teeth with decay display with a higher level of fluorescence. And the higher the fluorescence, the more advanced the tooth decay. Once the scan is complete, the fluorescence readings are converted into a digital numeric output. You will also “hear” when you have decay present, as changes in fluorescence and numeric value are emitted as an audio signal that goes up in tone as it denotes the presence of decay.
Tooth decay may be more difficult to detect today than it was in the past. Why? It's probably due in part to improved oral hygiene, and, ironically, the increased use of fluoride in toothpaste and in tap water. While fluoride has proven invaluable at protecting teeth by hardening their outer enamel surface, that increased hardness can sometimes conceal even aggressive decay. As a result, tooth decay can be difficult to find, even with the use of traditional x-rays.
Furthermore, prior to using a laser scanner, dentists depended upon x-rays and using fine picks to identify cavities. However, using laser technology provides about a 90% accuracy rate for identifying suspicious areas and cavities. This translates to earlier detection, less tooth structure loss resulting in stronger teeth, less time spent in the dental chair, and, ultimately, a financial savings to you.
They are inside your laptop computer and your DVD player, present on the factory floor and the supermarket checkout line. And now, lasers are finding increasing use in dentistry. Someday soon, you may have a routine dental procedure performed with the aid of a powerful, yet highly controllable beam of laser light, instead of a drill or a probe.
What are dentists currently using lasers for? These devices have been proven to help in the detection and treatment of oral diseases. They can be used for treating gum disease, detecting cancer, and pinpointing tooth decay in its early stages. They can precisely remove tissue, seal painful ulcerations like canker sores, and even treat small cavities. In the future, dental laser technology will undoubtedly find even more applications.
Lasers take advantage of the quantum behavior of electrons, tiny particles inside atoms. By stimulating atoms with pulses of energy, and then using a method of optical amplification, they cause the atoms to produce a beam of coherent light. Essentially, that means that they emit light which has a great deal of energy, yet can be precisely controlled. It's the combination of high energy and precision that make lasers so useful.
At present, the use of lasers in dentistry falls into three general categories: disease detection, soft tissue treatments, and hard tissue treatments.
There are many ways lasers can aid in diagnosis. Laser light of specific wavelength, for example, can detect tiny pits and fissures in the biting surfaces of the tooth that a traditional dental tool can't find. This enables a defect that's too small to be treated at present to be carefully monitored. Lasers can also help locate dental calculus (tartar) beneath the surface of the gums, and can even aid in the detection of oral cancer in its early stages, accurately showing where healthy tissue ends and diseased tissue begins.
For the treatment of soft tissue problems, lasers have many advantages. They are minimally invasive tools that generally involve taking away less tissue than conventional methods. Used in gum surgery, for example, lasers can treat gum disease by killing harmful bacteria deep in pockets below the gum line, and removing the diseased tissue without harming the healthy tissue. They can also remove the thin layer of cells that inhibits reattachment of the gum and bone tissues to the tooth, while sealing off the adjacent blood vessels. This type of procedure generally results in less bleeding and pain. Lasers are also effective in treating ulcers and sores on the lips or gums.
Lasers are even finding increasing use for hard-tissue procedures, like the treatment of dental caries and cavities. Not only are they more exact in the amount of material they remove, but they eliminate the noise and vibration of the dental drill, which is uncomfortable for some patients.
As lasers become more common in the dental office, these high-tech tools will be integrated into routine dental practice. This promising technology already offers some real benefits, and is sure to find increasing use in the near future.
A tooth that has been structurally damaged by decay or trauma sometimes needs to be crowned or “capped” so that it can look good and function properly again. A crown is a durable covering that is custom-made to fit over the entire tooth from the gum line up. Crown fabrication traditionally takes place in a dental laboratory. But these days, there's a much more convenient alternative: same-day crowns made in the dental office.
Advanced dental technology known as Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing, or CAD/CAM, makes it possible to fabricate laboratory-grade crowns and other dental restorations in minutes. It's an amazing innovation when you consider that traditionally, crowns take two or three visits and just as many weeks of waiting. Now you can have a restored tooth without the wait.
Best of all, studies have shown that CAD/CAM tooth restorations are just as successful as crowns made with traditional materials and techniques. And the amazingly lifelike appearance of a same-day crown means that no one will know your tooth has been restored.
The process of crowning a tooth starts out the same way, whether it's a same-day crown or traditional crown: with “preparation” of the tooth. This involves removing any decay that's present, and shaping the tooth with a dental drill so that it will fit perfectly inside the crown. But the similarities end there.
If you were getting a traditional crown, the next step would be to take an impression (mold) of your teeth with a putty-like material, and use it to construct a model on which to create the crown. With a same-day crown, your teeth are simply given a light dusting of reflective powder and then a small scanning wand attached to a computer is used to take digital pictures inside your mouth. In seconds, the computer will generate a highly accurate 3D model of your teeth. But it gets even better.
With the help of the CAD/CAM software, your crown will be designed while you wait. The software can even be used to create a mirror-image twin of the same tooth on the other side of your mouth, for the most natural-looking result possible. Then a block of dental ceramic material is chosen in the shade that most closely matches your own teeth. The computer's digital design is transmitted to a milling machine that carves the crown from the ceramic block in about five minutes.
Once the crown's fit has been verified, and any necessary aesthetic enhancements have been made to the crown's surface (staining and glazing, for example), the crown will be bonded to your tooth. With a traditional crown, you would have to wear a temporary restoration for several weeks while the permanent crown was being fabricated at the lab. With a same-day crown, you walk out with the real thing.
Crowned teeth require the same conscientious care as your natural teeth. Be sure to brush and floss between all of your teeth — restored and natural — every day to reduce the buildup of dental plaque. When you have crowns, it is even more important to maintain your regular schedule of professional cleanings at the dental office. Avoid using your teeth as tools (to open packages, for example). If you have a grinding habit, wearing a nightguard would be a good idea to protect your teeth and your investment. A well-cared-for same-day crown will last for years to come.
Every so often, in dentistry and other fields, a new technology comes along that promises to change the standard practices. TADS (Temporary Anchorage Devices) aren't exactly new — orthodontists have used them since the 1980s — but they're gaining widespread acceptance today. The benefits they offer some orthodontic patients could even be called groundbreaking. Let's look at what these devices are, and what they can do.
Essentially, TADS are small, screw-like dental implants made of a titanium alloy. As the name implies, they're temporary — they usually remain in place during some months of treatment, and then they are removed. Their function is to provide a stable anchorage — that is, a fixed point around which other things (namely, teeth) can be moved. But why is anchorage so important?
Moving teeth in the jaw has been compared to moving a stick through the sand. With the application of force, sand moves aside in front of the stick, and fills up the space behind. The “sand” in this case consists of bone cells and cells of the periodontal ligament, which attaches the tooth to the bone. These tissues slowly move aside and reform as force is applied to them by orthodontic appliances, such as wires and elastics.
But to do its work, that force needs a fixed point to push against. For example, imagine trying to move the stick while you're floating free in the water: Not so easy! But with two feet firmly planted in the sand, you can do it. When possible, orthodontists use the back teeth as an anchor — but sometimes, cumbersome headgear may be required to provide the necessary anchorage. In many cases, using TADS can change that.
While it's generally preferred, the use of teeth as orthodontic anchors can have drawbacks in some cases. For example, there may not be a viable tooth located at the point where an anchor is needed. Also, when a greater force is required, the teeth used as anchors can themselves start to move. This is one instance where TADS are beneficial: These mini-implants can eliminate the need to use teeth as anchors, or stabilize a tooth that's being used as such.
TADS can also provide an anchorage point for a pushing or pulling force that would otherwise need to be applied from outside the mouth: generally, via orthodontic headgear. Wearing headgear can be uncomfortable, and compliance is sometimes a problem. In many situations TADS can eliminate the need for headgear, a welcome development for many patients.
The use of TADS offers other benefits as well: It may shorten overall treatment time, eliminate the need to wear elastics (rubber bands) — and in some cases, even make certain oral surgeries unnecessary. It also allows orthodontists to take on complex cases, which might formerly have proved very difficult to treat. This small device can really do a big job!
Like dental implants (which have been in use since the 1970s) TADS are small, screw-like devices that are placed into the bone of the jaw. Unlike implants, however, they don't always need to become integrated with the bone itself: They can be fixed in place by mechanical forces alone. Plus, they're much easier to put in and remove when treatment is complete. How easy?
Placing and removing TADS is a minimally-invasive, pain-free procedure. After the area being treated is numbed (with an injection or other numbing treatment), a patient feels only gentle pressure as the device is inserted. The whole process can take just minutes to complete. Afterward, an over-the-counter pain reliever can be taken if needed — but many patients need no pain reliever at all. And taking TADS out is even easier. So if you're worried that it may be a painful procedure: Relax! It's far less stressful than you may think.
While they're in place, TADS requires minimal maintenance. Generally, they should be brushed twice daily with a soft toothbrush dipped in an antimicrobial solution. You will receive specific instructions regarding maintenance when your TADS are placed.
Not every orthodontic patient needs TADS — but for those who do, it's a treatment option that offers some clear benefits.
Is there any image that illustrates the comforts of babyhood better than a sleepy infant sucking his or her thumb? Ultrasound pictures have shown, to the joy of many prospective parents, that this behavior can even occur in the womb. The thumb- or finger-sucking habit seems to relax and comfort toddlers too, and it's perfectly natural. But as a child grows, there comes a point where this habit isn't just socially awkward — it may also be harmful to his or her oral health.
In most children, thumb sucking stops on its own between the ages of two and four years. But if the practice persists after the primary (baby) teeth have erupted, it can drastically change the growth patterns of the jaw, and cause significant misalignment of the teeth. It may be hard to believe that such a benign habit can actually move teeth and bone — but there are a number of reasons why this occurs.
Children's jaws, rich in blood supply and growing rapidly, are relatively soft and flexible — especially in kids under the age of 8. So it really isn't hard for the constant pressure of a thumb or finger to deform the soft bone around the upper and lower front teeth. Children who are particularly vigorous thumb suckers are even more likely to change the growth patterns of the teeth and jaws.
If the thumb sucking habit persists, it can result in the upper front teeth flaring out and the lower ones moving back and inward. It can also hold back the growth of the lower jaw, while causing the upper jaw to be thrust forward. This can result in misalignment of the teeth, an anterior open bite (where the front teeth fail to close together), collapse of the upper jaw causing crossbite, or other problems. That's why it is important to stop the behavior at an appropriate time before damage occurs.
Like many potentially harmful behavior patterns, thumb sucking can be a difficult habit to break. Through the years, parents have tried a variety of home remedies, such as having the child wear gloves, coating the digits with a bitter-tasting substance — and even reasoning with their toddlers. Sometimes it works — but in other cases, the allure of thumb sucking proves very difficult to control.
If your child has a thumb or finger sucking habit that has persisted past the age of 3, and you've been unable to tame it, then it may be time for you to visit the dental office for a consultation. A “habit appliance” such as a fixed palatal crib or a removable device may be recommended for your child. This crib isn't for sleeping — it's a small metal appliance worn inside the mouth, attached to the upper teeth.
How does it work? The semicircular wires of a palatal crib keep the thumb or finger from touching the gums behind the front teeth. Simply preventing this contact seems to take all the enjoyment away from the thumb sucking habit — and without that pleasurable feedback, a child has no reason to continue the behavior. In fact, the device is often successful the first day it's worn.
If your child could benefit from a habit appliance, the first step is to get a thorough examination, which may include taking x-rays, photographs and dental impressions. If it's recommended, a crib will then be custom-fabricated to fit your child's mouth, and placed at a subsequent appointment. Afterward, your child will be periodically monitored until the appliance is removed — typically, a period of months.
Although wearing the crib isn't painful, your child may experience some soreness in the upper back teeth for a few hours after it's first installed. He or she may also have a little trouble falling asleep for a day or two afterward. Plenty of extra attention and TLC are usually all that's needed to make everything all right. While the appliance is being worn, it's best to avoid chewing gum and eating hard, sticky food that might cause it to come loose.
Like thumb sucking, tongue thrusting is a normal behavioral pattern in young children. It's actually part of the natural infantile swallowing pattern, which will normally change on its own — by the age of six, in most children. If the pattern doesn't change, however, it can lead to problems similar to those caused by thumb sucking: namely, problems with tooth alignment and skeletal development. Fortunately, this problem can be successfully treated with a habit appliance that's very similar to a fixed palatal crib.
Sucking on a thumb or finger is a completely normal habit that some babies develop even before they're born. It's soothing, and it also helps babies make contact with and explore their environment. If sucking habits go on much past the age of 3, however, it's possible that bite problems may arise.
In a normal bite, the upper teeth grow to overlap the lower teeth. But it's possible for the pressure of a thumb, finger or pacifier resting on the gums to interfere with normal tooth eruption and even jaw growth. Some thumb-suckers develop an “open bite,” meaning the teeth don't overlap when a child bites together (View Example); instead, there is an open space between the upper and lower teeth. That's why thumb sucking is definitely something we should keep an eye on, though we don't want to intervene too soon.
It's important to keep in mind that most children break thumb-sucking habits on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. So if you're trying to get your child to stop, the first thing to do is simply ignore it. Pacifiers will usually be given up more quickly than thumbs or fingers. If your child seems unable to stop when it's time, positive reinforcements tend to work better than negative (e.g., putting a bitter substance on the thumb). Here are some things you can try:
Thumb sucking is just one reason why it's important to maintain your child's regular schedule of dental exams, starting at age 1. At these appointments, you and your child can also learn effective oral hygiene techniques to help prevent tooth decay. Meanwhile, your child's dental growth and development will be monitored. Though orthodontics can usually fix bite problems that result from sucking habits, we'd just as soon help you avoid this expense if possible!
After a thorough, professional tooth cleaning, you know that your teeth look brighter and feel fresher. But tooth cleaning isn't just about appearances. It's the primary means of preventing and treating periodontal (gum) disease. Many studies have demonstrated a possible link between periodontal health and overall (systemic) health — which means regular tooth cleaning may benefit not just your mouth, but your whole body.
Why do teeth need special cleaning? Over time, dental plaque (a naturally occurring bacterial biofilm) and stains build up on tooth surfaces. Dental calculus (also called tartar), a harder deposit, can then form both above and below the gum line. A thorough dental cleaning removes these substances from the teeth, and helps keep disease-causing bacteria from proliferating.
Tooth cleaning is usually accomplished by the non-surgical technique of scaling, sometimes called “root debridement.” It's typically a relatively painless procedure in which small dental instruments are used to physically remove deposits from the surfaces of teeth. At one time, scaling was performed entirely with manual tools. But in the last several decades, the ultrasonic scaler has changed all that.
There are different types of ultrasonic scalers, but all of them work in a similar fashion: electromagnetic forces in the unit's handheld “wand” cause its tiny tip to vibrate rapidly. These vibrations, which occur at a rate faster than the speed of sound, effectively blast away plaque, calculus and stains from the tooth surfaces.
A small stream of water and/or antibacterial mouthwash, which emerges near the tip of the scaler, is called lavage. Lavage is used to cool the ultrasonic scaler's tip and flush away debris from the area being treated. The vibrating tip causes some of the water to break into millions of tiny bubbles, an effect called cavitation. This ruptures the walls of bacterial cells and helps create an environment that's less hospitable to harmful bacteria.
Studies show that a thorough ultrasonic cleaning takes about one-third less time as compared to hand scaling — which means you need less time in the chair. Many patients prefer ultrasonics to other types of scaling, possibly because it requires the clinician to use less force than a hand scaler to get the same effect. In ultrasonic scaling, only the tip of the tool touches the tooth surface, and only for a short time.
It's also possible to remove deposits of plaque and tartar from under the gum line by using an extremely small tip on an ultrasonic unit, which can cause less discomfort and result in a deeper and better cleaning. Sometimes an ultrasonic scaler is used first, and then any stubborn areas are scaled by hand.
Anyone who has a substantial buildup of tartar or is prone to gum disease can benefit from ultrasonic scaling. It can also help to remove stains from coffee and cigarettes, for example. Yet, for all its power, most people experience little or no discomfort during the procedure.
If you have very sensitive teeth, it may be possible to alleviate some discomfort by using slimmer tips on the scaler. Alternatively, a topical anesthetic may be applied, or conscious sedation can be administered. The power range, the flow of lavage water and the frequency of tip vibration may also be adjusted for increased comfort.
Special tips are also available to clean composite or porcelain tooth restorations, titanium implants, or areas of demineralization (enamel loss) on your teeth. If you have a cardiac pacemaker, be sure to alert all dental professionals/personnel before ultrasonic scaling treatment, so precautions can be taken.