High-tech dentistry

Modern advancements have made your visit faster, less painful and more precise.

Visiting the dentist always seems a little analog (the lead vest for X-rays; the 70s-style overhead light; getting a reminder to floss and a toothbrush on the way out). But a lot of this is becoming passé. Advancements in the field have made maintaining healthy teeth and gums easier and less anxiety-evoking. Here, what to expect if your dentist is practicing the most modern medicine. 

Getting x-rays is faster.

Chair-side digital X-rays can be done more swiftly and expose you to less radiation than traditional film images. You still have to hold those plastic things between in your teeth, but only for about 10 seconds, because the assistant taking the X-rays doesn’t have to leave the room to take each picture.

"The benefits are enormous,” says David E. Cohen, D.D.S., associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry. “There’s no darkroom or physical X-ray film to keep. Results are seen almost instantaneously and can be retaken and changed in size, contrast, brightness and measured." Plus, they can be emailed to you and other offices rather than snail-mailed.

The pain quotient is lower.

The chief source of many people’s dental fear is the needle used to deliver anesthetic before procedures. A device called The Wand can zap some of the stress from the process. It uses a smaller syringe and sends out slow, computer controlled doses of painkiller over a few minutes––it's the slow delivery that makes it less painful. It also quickens the time that you're feeling back to normal. “If single teeth are treated, there’s no numb feeling in the lips, cheeks or tongue," Cohen adds.  

Then there's laser technology, which has simplified certain surgical procedures, such as removing lesions, “drilling” out decay and repairing damage to gums. Simplification equates to less time in the chair, fewer errors on the part of your dentist and a shorter healing time.

"Lasers can be used on soft tissues such as gums and lips, and the high-powered super-heated laser can trim and cauterize (stop bleeding) at the same time,” says Edita Outericka, D.M.D., a dentist at Dynamic Dental in Mansfield, Mass., and co-author of A Cup of Coffee With My Dentist.

There's not a plaster mold in sight.  

If there’s one thing that gets dentists excited it’s intraoral scanning. It’s this technology that has replaced the need for messy plaster molds to make dental implants (a titanium screw that fuses to your jaw bone and then has a tooth placed over it), crowns, bridges and orthodontics, says Cynthia Blalock, DDS, a general dentist in St. Peters, Mo. Three-dimension images can also help diagnose sleep and snoring issues, as well as jaw and TMJ (temporomandibular joint) pain.

Detecting problems is more precise.

Your dentist may already check for cancer, but doesn’t let you know so as not to freak you out. It’s still worth asking about. Some dentists screen using digital devices such as the VELscope and ViziLite that detect changes in soft and hard tissues. Others cite the rate of false positives and contend that visual examinations are sufficient, so don't be surprised if it's not part of your visit.

Similarly, noninvasive lights are often used to look for cavities in the mouth as well. "These have been around for some time, but recent advancements have made them more reliable,” says Outericka. “The shadows cast by cavities between teeth can now be detected without the use of X-rays." 

You'll get tailored care.

"The biggest leap in recent years has been in oral care products, rather than in procedures,” says Michael Apa, DDS, a cosmetic dentist in New York City. “Compared with 15 years ago, toothpastes and rinses are much more targeted, with specific ingredients for particular problems.”

Your dentist can recommend formulas to help address soft teeth, sensitive teeth, gum problems and dry mouth between dental visits. Special high-fluoride products can help fight teeth erosion and mouth rinses high in antioxidants can help slow the effects of gum disease.