Remember that goopy, chalky-tasting stuff in the mold that the dentist made you keep in your mouth for what seemed like forever so he could make an impression for a crown or inlay?
It made an impression, alright, but like so many technologies in dentistry, it’s gotten a little long in the tooth. Sink your teeth into this, instead: In the not too distant future, the dentist will do a quick computer scan of your mouth and, with the click of a mouse, will send off all the measurements to a lab.
Even better, the impression will be sent to an in-office machine the size of an oven that makes the restoration in the same day, thus eliminating the need for multiple trips to the dental office and for temporary restorations that later have to be replaced.
But that’s just a taste of the future: Some of the real cutting-edge stuff is in a place called the Dream Room at the University of Maryland’s Baltimore College of Dental Surgery.
“This is probably the most advanced chair in the U.S.,” says associate professor Gary Hack, gesturing to the sleek dental chair that’s just inside the door of the R&D area at the college.
Suspended along one side of the chair is a graphic user interface that can be used to modify the configuration of the chair or show a patient digital images of the inside of his or her mouth. The chair itself can tilt or swivel to accommodate a left-handed dentist. It can shrink to accommodate a small patient. Or expand to fit a larger one.
“I can put the light on or even adjust the intensity of the light just by waving my hand,” continues Hack, gamely moving his hand beneath the bulb. He’s rewarded by a beam of light, but he’s already off to a nearby cabinet to demonstrate a motion-sensor application that opens the door. “Keeping the work surface clean is critical,” he says, explaining the benefit of motion-controlled gadgets.
The Dream Room is a showcase for the latest and greatest in dental technology—akin to Q’s lab of spy gadgets in the James Bond films—and is part of the recently revamped dental school building. It’s here that UMB tests new technologies, “things our students will be using in 10 years,” says Hack. In fact, UMB is one of just four dental schools in the country selected by the American Dental Association (ADA) to review new technologies.
For the school’s future dentists, receiving training on cutting-edge tools is critical. “The technology is going to explode,” says Hack. Already, students have access to tools that improve the learning experience. In UMB’s simulation lab, they hone their skills using life-like dental dummies, sophisticated electric handtools, and digital displays. Back in the Dream Room, some will get their hands on a teaching tool that looks like a souped-up pen and simulates the feeling of cutting through tissue—without the need to practice on an actual human.
When they graduate, students will likely find that dentistry’s new tools, combined with science’s greater understanding of the human body, are transforming the way they’ll perform their craft, reducing patient discomfort and vastly improving outcomes in oral health.
HELLO, DIGITAL AGE
It will come as no surprise that in the future world of dentistry, as UMB dean Christian S. Stohler puts it, “Everything is digital”—from patient records to images to the design of dental restorations.
Digital radiography—which replaces film x-rays with electronic images—is already making inroads at dental offices around the country. The technology comes with a myriad of benefits, including reduced pollution and less radiation exposure.
Digital images are also higher resolution and easier to manipulate, which makes spotting problems early easier than ever, says William F. Martin III, a dentist and president of the Maryland State Dental Association.
“I’m going to see far more detail and be able to better treat things when they’re small, rather than wait till they’re big enough to see on little film,” says Martin. “It’s changing the face of not only how we do dentistry, but when things are picked up.”
And the images are easy to transport, which means they can follow patients wherever they go. “If I’m consulting with an oral surgeon, I can e-mail the image in a jpeg and say, ‘What do you think, is this a good choice or bad choice?’” says Martin. “The whole digital arena has endless possibilities to improve patient care.”
Some dental professionals have gone one step further—to 3-D images, like the ones produced by cone-beam CT scanners. Those machines currently are used primarily by dental surgeons and specialists, says Kyong Choe, a Towson-based periodontist whose practice began using a cone beam CT scanner about four years ago. They not only produce images immediately, and with less radiation than older-generation CT scanners, but they also offer a crystal-clear view of the jaw and teeth from a variety of angles. And, with accompanying software, the images can be used to make electronic surgical templates for implant surgery or procedures. “It eliminates a lot of the guesswork that used to be done with surgery,” says Choe. “It basically makes you more precise.”
RESTORING, REPAIRING, REGROWING
Dental implants are not new, but continual improvements in the materials used to make them and the 3-D imagery and software surgeons use to plan them have made implants an increasingly attractive option for tooth replacement.
“A denture is kind of like a peg leg. But if you have a bad knee today, you’re not going to have your leg chopped off and get a peg leg,” says Martin. “We’re getting to the spot where there will be no reason for anybody to ever have a denture.” Instead, you’ll likely opt for an implant, which uses super-strong titanium, the same material used for joint replacements which, unlike bridges, can be placed without having to alter surrounding teeth.
Of course, implants, too, may one day be improved upon. “There is the dream out there of growing teeth,” says Stohler. Researchers at UMB are hard at work developing engineering processes to replace, repair, or regrow tissue. “At the moment, they don’t look like teeth,” says Stohler, “but without a doubt, advances are on the horizon.”
Until then, though, anyone with teeth can take some comfort in the fact that many dental procedures will continue to become more comfortable, quicker, and easier in coming years, say the experts.
Take the unnerving buzzing that most people associate with the dental drill, for example. It’s rapidly being replaced by the quiet hum of a new generation of electric handpieces, which in addition to being quieter, are easier to control.
Expect to see developments in the use of lasers, too, says Dr. Ronald Zentz, senior director of the Chicago-based Council on Scientific Affairs.
Martin foresees the day when “you can go in and have a digital x-ray, have a laser treatment on a tooth, have your impression taken on a scanner, and never really have what would even remotely seem like a traditional dentist appointment. Where dentistry might be in five or 10 years is really amazing.”