Dental Lasers

Not long ago, lasers were thought to be futuristic, dangerous, machines that would be developed into weapons by future generations.  Now here we are in 2012 and lasers are everywhere.  They are used for almost every conceivable possibility.  In medical fields, lasers have become increasingly useful as surgical tools because they provide better than pinpoint accuracy and cutting power.  In dentistry, the use of lasers is a relatively new phenomenon.  Beginning in the early 1990s the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) approved lasers for use on gums and several years later, in 1996, approved them for use on teeth and hard tissue.  Since their introduction in the 1990s, lasers have become a more routine part of dental practice.  They are now used to treat tooth decay, gum disease, biopsy or remove lesions, and whiten teeth.  One major reason that lasers have not become even more popular is because they are very cost prohibitive.  Even with that high cost, lasers are no longer some futuristic pipe dream, like hovercrafts or flying cars. They are an integral, everyday, part of dental practice and will continue to grow as research reduces their cost.

How Do Dental Lasers Work

Lasers work by delivering energy as a concentrated beam of light.  When used for dental procedures, the laser acts as a cutting instrument by vaporizing tissue that it comes into contact with.  When used for “curing” a filling, the laser strengthens the bond between the filling and the tooth. When used in teeth whitening procedures, the laser acts as a heat source to enhance the effect that tooth bleaching agents have.

Dental Uses for Lasers

Lasers currently have several uses in the dental industry.  They can be used to help treat tooth decay.  They are used to remove the decay from inside the tooth and to prepare the enamel for the filling.  Lasers can also be used to “cure”, or harden, a filling.  Lasers have not gained wide usage for fillings because they are far more expensive than a pneumatic drill.  Lasers are used to reshape gums and to remove bacteria during root canal procedures.  Biopsy and lesion removal are more common uses for lasers.  Laser can be used to biopsy small amount of tissue so they can be tested for diseases such as cancer.  They can also be used to treat lesions such as canker sores.  Lasers are used to speed up the in-office teeth whitening procedures. A peroxide bleaching solution, applied to the tooth surface, is “activated” by laser energy, which speeds up of the whitening process.

Pros and Cons of Laser Use

Lasers provide several improvements over the use of pneumatic drills and other, older, dental technology.  In most cases, lasers cause less pain and discomfort than older dental technology.  This can reduce or completely remove the need for local anesthetic.  They may also reduce the anxiety a instilled in a patient by a large, noisy, drill.  When used for soft tissue treatments, they reduce and swelling and bleeding.  They are also much better at preserving healthy tooth during the removal of cavities.

Although there are numerous advantages to laser usage, they are not without their setbacks.  Price is the biggest setback.  They are simply too expensive for many dentists to afford.  For example, lasers can cost between $39,000 and $45,000 compared to about $600 for a standard drill.  They also cannot be used on teeth which already have fillings in place, which for some patients renders them useless.  Traditional drills also may be needed to shape and polish the filling or adjust the bite, tasks that lasers simply cannot perform.

The future is now. Lasers are no longer tools of the distant future.  They are used in the here and now.  I have been to the dentist and had dental work done with a laser and, I must say, it is wonderful!  The pain and anxiety caused by those awful drills is eliminated.  The laser is silent, quick, and quite cool.  When lasers fully replace drills as the preferred method of dental repair, the days of being terrified of the dentist will be gone.  Kids will be excited to go to the dentist and have their teeth blasted by lasers like they are storm troopers in Star Wars.  Hopefully one day soon, lasers will completely replace pneumatic drills as the preferred method of fixing teeth.