The same technology that created Blu-ray video is changing the way dentists look at teeth. The use of shorter-wavelength, higher-energy blue light has helped create more powerful and accurate optics that give a crisper, higher definition to home-entertainment screens.
Dental digital imaging systems have also capitalized on this idea to create 3-D virtual images of teeth that result in the fabrication of more accurate crowns created in a fraction of the time.
"Dentistry is having a paradigm shift," says Medford dentist Dr. John Ritacca. "With traditional impressions (photos), there can be distortions. With digital, images are stored in a database for every patient. If a patient breaks a tooth, we can replicate it — fabricate a 3-D model."
The digital images are fed to a software system called CEREC that creates the new accurate crown while the patient waits. Instead of suffering for two weeks with a temporary fragile crown that doesn't quite fit, a patient can have a new tooth in one to two hours.
"This is also used for dental implants — young people who break a tooth or an elderly patient whose bridge breaks. It's so accurate that an oral surgeon can measure to within one-tenth of a millimeter for placing implants," Dr. Ritacca adds.
Ritacca estimates that 10,000 CEREC systems are in use nationwide, and the number is growing. The technology isn't cheap, costing about $100,000.
Pain, numb lips, uncontrollable drooling — things most people associate with trips to the dentist — are becoming less frequent, thanks to a different type of light: lasers.
"Using a laser drill, we can make smaller holes that take less of the tooth away, and it can create a rougher surface for the filling to bond to. For the patient with small to medium-sized fillings, there are no shots, no numbness afterward. It's especially good for kids," says Dr. Karl Schneck, a Medford dentist.
Although lasers are also used on deeper fillings and root canals, don't expect to avoid the anesthetic for those more-involved procedures.
The use of lasers to cut through the gum and other soft tissues has been around for a long time and is used by perhaps 50 percent of dentists nationwide, says Schneck. But use on hard tissue — tooth enamel — has only been around for six years and is used by a mere 5 percent of dentists, he says.
Lasers alleviate another common complaint: Laser drills feel a lot less like a jackhammer in your head than rotating drills. Reduced vibrations also have a hidden benefit.
"A conventional drill can crack the enamel because of the vibrations," Schneck explains.
High-frequency sound is even more common than high-frequency light in modern dentistry.
These days a hygienist is more likely to use ultrasonics than a metal scraper for teeth cleaning.
"Ultrasonics: It's an electronic machine with a curved metal tip that vibrates back and forth so fast it literally explodes plaque and other material off the tooth," says Medford dentist Dr. Ralph Miller.
This technology is much more effective than a conventional scraping tool.
"A scraper drags up and down across a curved (tooth) surface. Ultrasonics covers more surface area; it goes around the tooth," Miller adds.
Recent studies have shown that ultransonics are safe below the gum line, too, says Miller, and this has opened the way for using sound technology for root planing and other periodontal applications.
Ultrasonics has also made its way into consumer products.
"I don't tend to be a gizmo person," Miller admits. "But if you want to buy a gizmo, buy the Sonicare toothbrush — the bristles move electronically like an ultrasound cleaner."
But with all the new technology in the dentist's office, the principles of good dental hygiene haven't changed in years.
"When you brush," Miller advises, "get the area where the tooth meets the gum and use soft bristles to avoid damage to the enamel. Floss once and brush twice every day."