High-tech pearly whites: New technology hits the world of dentistry, orthodontics

Brush and floss daily. It seems easy enough and yet, despite performing the daily regimen religiously, sometimes bad teeth happen to good people. That's why, at least twice a year, we are instructed to see our oral healthcare professional.

According to the Michigan Dental Association, some 96 dentists, orthodontists and oral surgeons serve the oral health needs of residents in the Grand Traverse region. In use by these professionals is a substantial amount of state-of-the-art technology that not only serves to elevate the capabilities of dental practitioners, but to enhance the experience of the patient, as well.

X-ray vision

Computer digital radiography (CDR), or digital X-rays, is in use by several area dentist offices, including Deerhaven Family Dentistry, to diagnose trouble spots amidst those pearly whites. While having one's teeth x-rayed is nothing new, the way in which the X-rays are viewed is. Rather than viewing images of your teeth and gums on small, one-inch square films, CDR enables doctors to view these images instantaneously on a large computer screen.

"Digital X-rays make it easier to communicate with patients," says Deerhaven founder Dr. Steven Niergarth. "We have two screens – one for staff, one for the patient. The patient sees what we see, and we are able to explain, better, anything that may be of concern." Patients are more apt to follow through on prescribed treatment as well, added Dr. Niergarth, because of what they see.

CDR is also beneficial in that patients are exposed to less radiation – the procedure doesn't take nearly as long as it had in the past – and no chemicals are required to create the image. In addition, because it's digital, a dentist can zoom in, magnify, rotate and manipulate the image as needed. They can even download the image and email it to, say, an insurance company or specialist for further review.

"Laser" technology

DIAGNOdent is a laser scanner that enables the dental professional to detect cavities earlier, before they penetrate too far into the tooth's surface and are easier (and less painful) to fix. Because it can detect tooth decay in its earlier stages, DIAGNOdent often catches decay before an X-ray does. What DIAGNOdent does is, as it scans the tooth, assigns different numerical values to the areas of the tooth, revealing if an area may be in need of attention.

At Associates in Family Dentistry, the dentists use Waterlase, a patented combination of laser energy and water, to perform a wide range of dental procedures on teeth, gums and bones. Waterlase's claim to fame is that it requires no or very few shots and less anesthesia to provide a more comfortable dental experience. Waterlase is used for tooth, bone and gum procedures, decay removal, cavity preparation, root canals and more.

"Waterlase enables our doctors to treat our patients without drilling or injections," says Associates in Family Dentistry's Office Manager, Corey Bogart. "Essentially the pulsation of water lulls the nerve to sleep, and then the laser technology 'erases' the decay."

A new dimension

Sometimes oral health problems – and solutions – reveal themselves far beyond the gum line. The i-CAT imaging system at Dr. Ronald Lints' Orthodontics, located in Copper Ridge, is a mechanism that, like a medical CT scan, provides three-dimensional views of all oral and maxillofacial structures.

While two-dimensional X-rays work well in most cases, there are times when a more detailed look within the patients jaw and surrounding areas is needed. i-CAT's three-dimensional imaging technology provides more accurate viewing of impacted or abnormal teeth in relationship to other structures, such as roots, nasal passages, and sinuses.

"With difficult cases, there is not a lot of room for error," says Dr. Lints. "What the i-CAT allows for is better, more thorough diagnosis. And with proper diagnosis, we can create a better treatment plan." Before i-CAT, Dr. Lints and other members of the dental profession had to send their patients in for a medical CT for similar diagnostic capabilities, exposing them to much more radiation and requiring more time for results. Currently, there are only seven i-CAT imaging systems in Michigan, Dr. Lints' being one of them.

Other specialists in the area, such as oral surgeons and periodentists, have utilized Dr. Lints' i-CAT expertise in helping them treat their patients with implant placement, jaw joint pain or dysfunction, full mouth reconstruction, molar extractions or surgical approaches. Dr. Lints takes the image, downloads it and sends it on a disk, same day, back to the patient's referring dentist or oral surgeon.

Walking the straight line

According to the Ameican Associatin of Orthodontists, nearly 5.5 million Americans wear braces. Although about 80 percent of them are children and teens, more adults than ever are enhancing their smiles as well.

Dr. Scott Schulz of Schulz Orthodontics credits self-ligating, or ligature-free, braces with being one of the most significant advances in orthodontrics in recent years. Ligature-free braces, or "braces with doors," as Dr. Schulz refers to them, eliminate the need for the elastic or metal "ties" that were used in braces of the past. Instead, the use a slide mechanism that holds onto the wire and, because there is less resistance, in most cases, speeds up the straightening process.

"To the patient, this means less pressure, easier to clean, and less frequent visits – eight- to ten-week intervals versus four- to five-week intervals," says Dr. Schulz. "The other benefit is a great decrease in the need for extraction of teeth with braces. The system allows a gentle unraveling of the teeth producing a wider, natural smile without tooth removal."

Not only are there fewer office visits, but self-ligating braces can also mean less time in the chair, as unlike traditional braces, self-ligating braces do not have elastic ligatures that must be replaced during each visit.

King Me

It used to be that tooth crowns took two to three weeks and several appointments to fit, create and install in a patient's mouth. After a mold of the tooth-to-be-crowned was made (appointment #1), it was shipped out to a dental lab and two weeks later (appointment #2), the crown would be installed. At Access Dental in Traverse City, Dr. Rob Lovell, using Computer Aided Design and Access' in-office crown fabrication system, creates same-day dental crowns, saving patients time, money and discomfort.

Dentistry as it was gave the dental profession the misfortune of being about as popular as an IRS representative. Fortunately for both them and the patient, the state-of-the-art technology that is in use today, as well as that which is being developed for tomorrow, is making the recommended semi-annual trip to the dentist a bit more pleasant. BN