X-rays are an important diagnostic tool in dentistry because of their ability to penetrate and pass through body tissues. Because they penetrate at different speeds depending on tissue density (shorter and thus darker on exposed film for soft tissues, longer and lighter for hard tissues like bone or teeth), we’re able to detect decay which appear as dark areas on x-ray film.
Without x-rays, the early detection and diagnosis of dental problems would be quite difficult. But despite its obvious benefits, it’s still a form of released energy that exposes patients to a certain amount of radiation. Since the potential health risk from radiation depends on the amount released (the dosage) and for how long and often a person is exposed, we must determine if the dosage and frequency from dental x-rays is a cause for concern.
It’s a common misconception to view any radiation exposure as dangerous. The truth is, however, we’re all exposed daily to radiation from the natural environment — about 2 to 4.5 millisieverts (the dosage measurement for radiation exposure) a year, or about 10 microsieverts (one-thousandth of a millisievert) every day.
In comparison, radiation exposure from routine dental x-rays is a fraction of this if measured over time. A set of four bitewing images of the back teeth produces 4 microsieverts of radiation, less than half the average daily exposure. One of the most comprehensive x-ray sets, a full mouth series of 18-20 images using “D” speed film, results in an exposure of 85 microsieverts, equaling about a week of normal radiation exposure.
These thoroughly researched rates help demonstrate that regular dental x-rays are relatively safe. What’s more, x-ray technology has continued to advance since first used in the mid-20th Century. With innovations in film and digital processing, today’s equipment produces only 80% of the radiation exposure of earlier machines. In effect, we’ve increased our capabilities to more accurately detect and diagnose issues through x-rays, while lowering the amount of radiation exposure.
Of course, a person’s annual exposure rate may differ from others. If you have concerns for yourself or your family about x-ray radiation exposure, please feel free to discuss this with us. Our primary goal is to improve your oral health without undue risk to your health in general.
If you would like more information on x-ray diagnostics and safety, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “X-Ray Frequency and Safety.”
Ever wonder just exactly what causes cavities? Once upon a time, “Toothworms” — miniscule, yet relentless pests — were thought to be responsible for this widespread malady. This belief persisted from ancient times through the 17th Century; William Shakespeare even made reference to the baneful beasts in his play Much Ado about Nothing. (“What, sigh for a toothache? [It] is but a humor or a worm.”) Today, however, we know why no one ever observed an honest-to-goodness toothworm: it’s because they’re much too tiny to see with the naked eye.
Actually, it isn’t worms, but much smaller organisms that cause tooth decay. These harmful plaque bacteria (along with many helpful microorganisms) live in the mouth, and build up on surfaces of the teeth when they aren’t cleaned properly. They feed on sugar in the diet, and release substances that erode tooth enamel, which causes small holes called cavities. Cavities, in turn, are what’s responsible for most toothaches.
While we may scoff at old legends, one fact remains: Even today, according to the National Institutes of Health, tooth decay is the number one chronic disease of both children and adults; and it’s almost entirely preventable. We can’t blame it on toothworms — but what can we do about it?
Glad you asked! The best way to avoid decay is through prevention. That means brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and flossing them every day. It also means eating a balanced diet and avoiding acidic and sugary foods — like soda, some juices, and sweet, sticky snacks. If you do consume these types of foods, limit them to mealtimes; that gives your saliva enough time in between to neutralize the acids naturally. And, of course, make an appointment see us twice a year for a complete check-up and professional cleaning.
If you do begin to notice the symptoms of tooth decay (toothache, for example) it’s important to come in to the dental office right away, so we can treat the problem before it gets worse. Prompt action can often help save a tooth that might otherwise be lost. Besides filling the cavity, we may be also able to recommend ways to help prevent the disease from affecting other teeth. And if you need a more extensive procedure to relieve the problem — such as a root canal — we can make sure you get the appropriate treatment.
We’ve come a long way since the “toothworm” days — but we can still do a lot more to make tooth decay a thing of the past.
If you would like more information about tooth decay and cavity prevention, please contact us or schedule an appointment. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Decay — The World’s Oldest & Most Widespread Disease” and “Tooth Decay — How To Assess Your Risk.”
In her decades-long career, renowned actress Kathy Bates has won Golden Globes, Emmys, and many other honors. Bates began acting in her twenties, but didn't achieve national recognition until she won the best actress Oscar for Misery — when she was 42 years old! “I was told early on that because of my physique and my look, I'd probably blossom more in my middle age,” she recently told Dear Doctor magazine. “[That] has certainly been true.” So if there's one lesson we can take from her success, it might be that persistence pays off.
When it comes to her smile, Kathy also recognizes the value of persistence. Now 67, the veteran actress had orthodontic treatment in her 50's to straighten her teeth. Yet she is still conscientious about wearing her retainer. “I wear a retainer every night,” she said. “I got lazy about it once, and then it was very difficult to put the retainer back in. So I was aware that the teeth really do move.”
Indeed they do. In fact, the ability to move teeth is what makes orthodontic treatment work. By applying consistent and gentle forces, the teeth can be shifted into better positions in the smile. That's called the active stage of orthodontic treatment. Once that stage is over, another begins: the retention stage. The purpose of retention is to keep that straightened smile looking as good as it did when the braces came off. And that's where the retainer comes in.
There are several different kinds of retainers, but all have the same purpose: To hold the teeth in their new positions and keep them from shifting back to where they were. We sometimes say teeth have a “memory” — not literally, but in the sense that if left alone, teeth tend to migrate back to their former locations. And if you've worn orthodontic appliances, like braces or aligners, that means right back where you started before treatment.
By holding the teeth in place, retainers help stabilize them in their new positions. They allow new bone and ligaments to re-form and mature around them, and give the gums time to remodel themselves. This process can take months to years to be complete. But you may not need to wear a retainer all the time: Often, removable retainers are worn 24 hours a day at first; later they are worn only at night. We will let you know what's best in your individual situation.
So take a tip from Kathy Bates, star of the hit TV series American Horror Story, and wear your retainer as instructed. That's the best way to keep your straight new smile from changing back to the way it was — and to keep a bad dream from coming true.
If you would like more information about orthodontic retainers, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more about this topic in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Why Orthodontic Retainers?” and “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.” The interview with Kathy Bates appears in the latest issue of Dear Doctor.
Even though a child’s primary (“baby”) teeth eventually give way, it’s still important to treat them if they become decayed. Primary teeth serve as guides for the emerging permanent teeth — if they’re lost prematurely, the permanent tooth may come in misaligned.
If the decay, however, affects the tooth’s inner pulp, it poses complications. A similarly decayed adult tooth would be treated with a root canal in which all the pulp tissue, including nerve fibers and blood vessels, are removed before filling and sealing. Primary teeth, however, are more dependent on these nerves and blood vessels, and conventional filling materials can impede the tooth’s natural loss process. It’s better to use more conservative treatments with primary teeth depending on the degree of decay and how much of the pulp may be affected.
If the decay is near or just at the pulp, it’s possible to use an indirect pulp treatment to remove as much of the softer decay as possible while leaving harder remnants in place: this will help keep the pulp from exposure. This is then followed with an antibacterial agent and a filling to seal the tooth.
If the pulp is partially exposed but doesn’t appear infected, a technique called direct pulp capping could be used to cover or “cap” the exposed pulp with filling material, which creates a protective barrier against decay. If decay in a portion of the pulp is present, a pulpotomy can be performed to remove the infected pulp portion. It’s important with a pulpotomy to minimize the spread of further infection by appropriately dressing the wound and sealing the tooth during and after the procedure.
A pulpectomy to completely remove pulp tissue may be necessary if in the worst case scenario the pulp is completely infected. While this closely resembles a traditional root canal treatment, we must use sealant material that can be absorbed by the body. Using other sealants could inhibit the natural process when the primary tooth’s roots begin to dissolve (resorb) to allow it to eventually give way.
These all may seem like extraordinary efforts to save a tooth with such a short lifespan. But by giving primary teeth a second chance, their permanent successors will have a better chance of future good health.
If you would like more information on treating decay in primary teeth, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Root Canal Treatment for Children’s Teeth.”
Dental cleanings are an important part of regular dental office visits. Performed by a dental hygienist or dentist, cleanings serve two purposes: to remove bacterial plaque and calculus (hardened deposits of plaque) from tooth surfaces missed during daily brushing and flossing; and to remove stains that can dull your smile.
There are different degrees of cleaning, including root planing that removes plaque and calculus deep below the gum line, usually for patients affected by periodontal (gum) disease. For patients in good oral health, the basic cleaning approach is known as prophylaxis, a term derived from the Greek for guarding or preventing beforehand. The techniques used in a prophylaxis remove both “coronal” (tooth surfaces visible above the gum line) plaque and staining, providing both therapeutic and cosmetic benefits.
A typical prophylaxis includes a procedure known as scaling. Hygienists use special instruments known as scalers to remove plaque and calculus by hand, or an ultrasonic device that vibrates plaque loose and is flushed away with water. The procedure removes that rough coating you often feel as you rub your tongue against your teeth, leaving the tooth surfaces feeling smooth.
Tooth polishing is a subsequent procedure to scaling that also removes plaque and surface stains. Polishing is carried out with a motorized instrument with a rubber cup in which a polishing (or “prophy”) paste is contained. The hygienist moves the rapidly rotating cup filled with the paste over the tooth surface to remove plaque and stains. The end result is a highly smooth surface and a much shinier appearance.
People with dental insurance plans are often concerned tooth polishing may be viewed strictly as a cosmetic procedure, and thus not fully qualify for benefits. This should not be the case if coded properly: tooth polishing is part of the overall prophylaxis to remove plaque and staining. The primary purpose is therapeutic and preventive; the cosmetic effect is a by-product. Most dental plans will cover one or two prophylaxes (scaling and tooth polishing) a year, but there are variations so individuals should check their plans.
If you would like more information on dental cleaning, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Polishing.”
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