Beam Me Up: Lasers in Your Dentist's Office
Once considered a fantasy technology seen only on television shows like Star Trek, lasers are now being used in ways even science fiction writers couldn't have imagined, including a wide variety of dental applications. Here are just a few of the ways lasers are changing how dentists work.
Some dental offices use lasers to reduce the amount of bacteria in periodontal pockets – unusually large spaces between gums and teeth – with a procedure often called “pocket sterilization.” However, the American Academy of Periodontology states that current evidence shows that lasers are unpredictable and inconsistent in their ability to reduce microbial loads beyond those achieved by scaling and root planning alone. Keep in mind that Delta Dental does not cover this procedure.
Tooth decay in the very early stages – when it hasn't destroyed much of the tooth structure or reached the outer layer of the tooth – can be difficult for a dentist to detect, unless he or she is working with a device that uses a red laser to find decay. By measuring the way the laser light reflects back, dentists have a better idea of what's going on within the tooth. This enables dentists to catch decay early and try to reverse it with fluoride or cover it with a sealant before there is serious damage. Experts caution that there are limitations: It doesn't work on teeth that already have fillings, and there can be false positives where the laser says there is decay but there really isn't. At this point, it's believed to offer a good second opinion to the dentist's standard exam. Bonus: It's pain-free.
Certain lasers can be used to get rid of decay within a tooth and help prepare the tooth for the filling. Plus, if you are getting a tooth-colored (composite) filling, once the filling material is in place, lasers help some composite fillings “cure” or harden.
Whitening (sort of)
People often refer to light-accelerated tooth whitening as “laser” whitening. That's a misnomer, however, since no lasers are actually involved. What really happens is that a dentist applies a hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide solution to the teeth, and then points a whitening accelerator light at the gel-covered teeth. Several applications can brighten teeth by up to 12 shades in under an hour.