Health Take-Away: New technologies quell age-old fears of dentistry

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It's one the most common human fears and phobias of all, particularly for those of us beyond our 20s, as we remember the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of going to the dentist in our childhood. The big needle. The high-pitched whirr and jarring vibration of the dentist's drill. The scent of antiseptic and freshly-ground cavities. Those vivid memories may trigger high anxiety and a great reluctance to return to the dentist for much-needed care.

But anyone who has visited the dentist in more recent years has been pleasantly greeted by an ever-expanding array of technologies and techniques designed to make the dental experience far less fearful and far more effective. Pain-free injections. High-precision tools that barely make a sound. Digital imaging that creates instant x-rays and high-definition templates for making crowns. Even lasers that treat cavities without drills or anesthesia.

Those technologies have made modern-day dentistry less well, like pulling teeth and more like what it should be: an easy-to-tolerate, even welcomed part of your overall health maintenance routine. Here's just a sampling of what you'll likely find at the dentist nowadays:

The Wand: One of the greatest sources of dental dread in the past was the large needle used to inject anesthesia. Most of today's dentists are using a gentle, computer-assisted device called the Wand for delivering anesthesia. Held by the dentist like a pen, the Wand slowly administers anesthesia in computer-calibrated amounts through a small needle at the tip. Many patients say they don't even feel the injection.

Digital x-rays: Remember those visits when your cheeks were stuffed with that film-strip apparatus used to take x-rays of your teeth? One section at time, you'd sit there mouth agape, draped in a lead blanket as the technician stepped out to throw the switch on huge camera aimed at your face. Today, those x-rays are captured instantly and comfortably with a hand-held sensor that processes the image onto a nearby computer screen. Radiation exposure is one-10th of what it was with the old method.

Digital impressions: You know that goop that made you gag when they took an impression of your teeth for a crown or other dental restoration? Well, it has been all but replaced by digital technology. A hand-held device fitted with a camera goes gently into the mouth and is used to capture extraordinarily high definition images of your original tooth. Those super 3D images become the template for creating exact-fit crowns, bridges and other tooth replacements.

Electric hand pieces: The often scary sounds and sensations associated with air-driven drills — the loud whine and the whirring vibrations — also are fading away. Following the lead of their European and Asian counterparts, U.S. dentists increasingly are using electric hand pieces, which are faster and more precise. They have a truer spin, a steady torque and don't slow down, stall or stop when the head of the device is applied to the tooth. They're also a lot quieter, almost inaudible when a dental air-vacuum tool also is being used.

Dental lasers: Another fast-evolving technology used in dentistry, lasers are being used for both soft-tissue and hard-tooth procedures. In some instances, they are used to prepare cavities for fillings without the use of anesthesia, as the lasers have a numbing effect themselves. Lasers are able to narrowly target the areas of the tooth structure needing treatment and also remove decay with microscopic precision. Though they haven't replaced other time-proven dental technologies, lasers are an emerging trend.

Regular dental care is an important part, not only of your oral health, but of your overall health throughout your life. That's one of the reasons why we're forever embracing new technologies and seeking ways to make the dental experience better for everyone.

Charles Nemser, DDS, is director of the dental residency program at Berkshire Health Systems.


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