Dentistry: It's Not the Same Old Drill

Imagine your dentist's office without the whirring sound of a high-speed drill--the sound that seems to go right through you. 

Well, you won't have to worry about the drill when you walk into your dentist's office in a few years. Dental researchers can't say for sure when it will happen, but they're confident that the drill will soon be obsolete. What will take its place? High-tech lasers. High-tech toothpastes and mouth rinses. Even chewing gum. And these are only a few of the many advances dental experts see when they look into the future.

Open wide. Here comes the future:

Super rinses

Dentists of the future will dispense special mouth rinses made of fluoride and calcium phosphate to repair naturally very small fissures or cavities and make teeth less sensitive to hot and cold food and drinks. The experts say the chemicals will reverse the process that causes teeth to break down. The rinses will then seal tiny cracks. 

This revolution in dentistry is spawning a number of products that will join the dentist's arsenal against plaque. Researchers have found that tannins--chemicals in chocolate, coffee, tea, beer and wine--work like a magnet to attract plaque-causing bacteria to clump together. A tannin-containing rinse might bring plaque together so you can get rid of it by brushing and flossing.

Man-made enamel

Harold C. Slavkin, D.D.S., dean of the School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California, says we're not all that far away from replicating actual tooth enamel to replace that which, over time, has worn away from the covering of your teeth.

Laser surgery

Already, an intense beam of laser light is being used to remove cysts and operate on gums, but the technology is still young. Several lasers have been licensed for very specific uses. Some harden the composite fillings now used to fill teeth (instead of the mercury/silver amalgam), some are used to locate small caries (by fluorescence), some are used to sterilize the inside of the "canal" in the root canal, and some are used to incise soft tissue (as stated above). Some lasers are used to remove tooth decay and prepare the teeth to receive small fillings. 

Computer X-rays

Computer-enhanced X-ray machines will give sharper pictures while exposing patients to far less radiation. Twenty-five years ago a patient was exposed to three or four seconds of radiation for a single picture; today, it's two-fifths of a second or less. 

In the near future, dentists will use computer-enhanced images to track the movement of teeth and bone structure over time. Special computers already are used at many universities to help produce images of teeth and bone. These pictures are then fed into a machine that cuts a replica of a missing piece of tooth. Smaller computers are already being used in some private offices so that the dentist can prepare a tooth for a porcelain filling or crown. It can then be delivered at the same visit, thereby eliminating the need for a second visit and a temporary filling or crown. 

The latest advice

While you're waiting for tomorrow, here are some tips to chew on: 

  • Don't use an entire inch of toothpaste on your brush. An amount about the size of a pea is all you need. 

  • Hold your toothbrush gently, using only your thumb, index, and middle fingers. When you grab the brush with your entire hand you use too much force. Hard brushing can abrade your gums and tooth enamel at the gum line.

  • More and more people are keeping their teeth longer. But senior citizens remain at risk for cavities around the roots of teeth. Frequently, medications they take for other conditions cause dry mouth, which in turn leads to tooth decay. Experts suggest patients ask their dentists if a fluoride rinse, available with a prescription, would help. They also suggest over-the-counter saliva substitutes.

  • Do you have a sweet tooth? Actually, many of the treats we think of as sweets get more calories from fat. The results on teeth are much the same, since many adults satisfy their fat cravings with chocolate, ice cream and baked goods--all loaded with fat and laced with sugar.

  • Brush your tongue to remove bacteria and freshen your breath.

  • The combined process of brushing and flossing should take about five minutes. A suggestion: Use an egg timer to keep pace.