28 January 2008

No-pain dentistry on the way

Neglect your teeth and you may lose them. But going to the dentist never used to be much fun - so what will it be like in the future?

So what's to stop you from getting a decent set of pearly whites? Expense is one thing: getting your teeth capped can be pricey. But for a few bucks your dentist will clean them until they gleam. They might not be perfectly even and symmetrical, but they’ll be white.

As important as their colour is, keeping them healthy is even more so, which is why alternating your six-monthly trip to an oral hygienist with dental check-ups is important. Flossing, too; it’s no using having clean-looking teeth in a mouth that smells like a superpower’s foreign policy.

No pain, no gain?
Like getting your car serviced, getting into the dentist’s chair simply needs to be done. So what stops some blokes from going? In a word, pain.

A lot of people have traumatic memories of pain in the dentist’s chair. For some, just the sight of a fish tank and dog-eared copies of Reader’s Digest is enough to trigger nervous tics.

So are you destined to a life of Orc-like green, gunky and gangrenous gnashers? Of course not. Chances are your last trip to the dentist was relatively painless. Pain and dentistry have mostly parted ways, although they do occasionally meet up over a bout of root canal work.

Drills something of the past
But soon even the squeal of the dentist’s drill will fade away. Lasers are expensive, but they’re increasingly being applied to dentistry. They can remove decayed tooth and bone better than high-speed drills.

How does it work? Lasers superheat the water in the body’s tissues within a fraction of a second. The water boils, exploding the cells in which it’s contained. When many of the cells explode at once, it removes layers or tissue or bone as efficiently as a scalpel or drill.

Or in some cases, even more efficiently. Dentists who’ve used the technology say it enables them to remove less of the tooth than they do when drilling.

Oddly, researchers came across the application for the technology while looking for ways to detect wind shear, an atmospheric disturbance that can send airliners tumbling out of the sky.

As far ago as 2900 BC, the Egyptian physicians drilled holes through a patient’s lower jaw to drain an abscessed tooth. It couldn’t have been fun being the patient. Happily, in a few years, you’ll have to resort to remakes of ’70s TV series if you want to feel real pain. (William Smook, updated January 2008)


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