Dental amalgam—also known as “silver fillings”—has been used for nearly a hundred years to treat cavities. There are several reasons why this mixture of metals has been the go-to material among dentists: Malleable when first applied, dental amalgam sets up into a durable dental filling that can take years of biting forces. What’s more, it’s stable and compatible with living tissue.
But there’s been growing concern in recent years about the safety of dental amalgam, with even some wondering if they should have existing fillings replaced. The reason: liquid mercury.
Mercury makes up a good portion of dental amalgam’s base mixture, to which other metals like silver, tin or copper are added to it in powder form. This forms a putty that can be easily worked into a prepared cavity. And despite the heightened awareness of the metal’s toxicity to humans, it’s still used in dental amalgam.
The reason why is that there are various forms of mercury and not all are toxic. The form making headlines is known as methylmercury, a compound created when mercury from the environment fuses with organic molecules. The compound builds up in the living tissues of animals, particularly large ocean fish, which have accumulated high concentrations passed up through their food chain.
That’s not what’s used in dental amalgam. Dentists instead use a non-toxic, elemental form of mercury that when set up becomes locked within the amalgam and cannot leach out. Based on various studies, treating cavities with it poses no health risks to humans.
This also means there’s no medical reason for having an existing silver fillings removed. Doing so, though, could cause more harm than good because it could further weaken the remaining tooth structure.
The most viable reason for not getting a dental amalgam filling is cosmetic: The metallic appearance of amalgam could detract from your smile. There are newer, more life-like filling options available. Your dentist, though, may still recommend dental amalgam for its strength and compatibility, especially for back teeth. It’s entirely safe to accept this recommendation.
Although we've known for some time how tooth decay forms, it's still prevalent across the population—even more so than cancer or heart disease. Along with gum disease, it's a leading cause of tooth loss.
Fortunately, our knowledge about tooth decay has grown considerably, to the point that we now recognize a number of risk factors that make it more likely a person will develop this disease. By first identifying them in individual patients, we can take steps to address them specifically to reduce the chances of this destructive disease.
Genetics. Researchers have identified around 40 to 50 genes that can influence cavity development. The best way to assess your genetic risk is through family history—if numerous close family members contend with tooth decay, your risk may be high. If so, it's important to be extra vigilant with addressing other areas over which you have more control.
Saliva. Cavities are directly caused by oral acid, a byproduct of bacteria, that can erode tooth enamel over prolonged contact. This is minimized, though, through a normal saliva flow that neutralizes acid and helps remineralize enamel. But poor saliva production can slow acid neutralization. You can improve your saliva flow by drinking more water, changing medications or using saliva-boosting products.
Oral hygiene. You can reduce bacteria (and thus acid) by removing their "room and board"—dental plaque. This accumulating film of food particles harbors the bacteria that feed on it. Daily brushing and flossing, accompanied by regular dental cleanings, effectively removes dental plaque, which in turn lowers the levels of oral bacteria and acid.
Dental-friendly diet. Even if you diligently address the previous risk factors, your diet may fight against your efforts. Diets high in processed and refined foods, especially sugar, provide abundant food sources for bacteria. On the other hand, a diet primarily of whole foods rich in vitamins (especially D) and minerals like calcium and phosphorous strengthen teeth against decay.
Preventing tooth decay isn't a "one-size-fits-all" approach. By identifying your own particular risk, we can craft a care strategy that can be your best defense against this destructive dental disease.
Finding out you have a cavity isn't the best of news. But finding out it's a root cavity is even worse: if not treated, the decay can spread more rapidly than a cavity occurring in the tooth's crown surfaces.
Our teeth are basically composed of two parts: the crown, the visible tooth above the gum line, and the roots, the hidden portion beneath the gums. The root in turn fits into a bony socket within the jaw to help hold the tooth in place (along with attached gum ligaments).
A tooth crown is covered by an ultra-hard layer of enamel, which ordinarily protects it from harmful bacteria. But when acid produced by bacteria comes into prolonged contact with enamel, it can soften and erode its mineral content and lead to a cavity.
In contrast to enamel, the roots have a thin layer of material called cementum. Although it offers some protection, it's not at the same performance level as enamel. But roots are also normally covered by the gums, which rounds out their protection.
But what happens when the gums shrink back or recede? This often occurs with gum disease and is more prevalent in older people (and why root cavities are also more common among seniors). The exposed area of the roots with only cementum standing in the way of bacteria and acid becomes more susceptible to cavity formation.
Root cavities can be treated in much the same way as those that occur in the crown. We first remove any decayed tooth structure with a drill and then place a filling. But there's also a scenario in which the cavity is below the gum line: In that case, we may need to gain access to the cavity surgically through the gums.
If you have exposed root areas, we can also treat these with fluoride to strengthen the area against cavity formation. And, as always, prevention is the best treatment: maintain a daily schedule of brushing and flossing and regular dental cleanings to remove bacterial plaque.
Because decay can spread within a tooth, dealing with a root cavity should be done as promptly as possible. But if we diagnose and initiate treatment early, your chances of a good outcome are high.
If you would like more information on treating root cavities and other forms of tooth decay, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Root Cavities.”
Between the final game of the World Series in late October and spring training in February, major league baseball players work on their skills preparing for the new season. Reporters on a Zoom call to the New York Yankees' training camp wanted to know what star outfielder Aaron Judge had been doing along those lines. But when he smiled, their interest turned elsewhere: What had Aaron Judge done to his teeth?
Already with 120 homers after only five seasons, Judge is a top player with the Yankees. His smile, however, has been less than spectacular. Besides a noticeable gap between his top front teeth (which were also more prominent than the rest of his teeth), Judge also had a chipped tooth injury on a batting helmet in 2017 during a home plate celebration for a fellow player's walk-off home run.
But now Judge's teeth look even, with no chip and no gap. So, what did the Yankee slugger have done?
He hasn't quite said, but it looks as though he received a “smile makeover” with porcelain veneers, one of the best ways to turn dental “ugly ducklings” into “beautiful swans.” And what's even better is that veneers aren't limited to superstar athletes or performers—if you have teeth with a few moderate dental flaws, veneers could also change your smile.
As the name implies, veneers are thin shells of porcelain bonded to the front of teeth to mask chips, cracks, discolorations or slight gaps between teeth. They may even help even out disproportionately sized teeth. Veneers are custom-made by dental technicians based on a patient's particular tooth dimensions and color.
Like other cosmetic techniques, veneers are a blend of technology and artistry. They're made of a durable form of dental porcelain that can withstand biting forces (within reason, though—you'd want to avoid biting down on ice or a hard piece of food with veneered teeth). They're also carefully colored so that they blend seamlessly with your other teeth. With the right artistic touch, we can make them look as natural as possible.
Although porcelain veneers can accommodate a wide range of dental defects, they may not be suitable for more severe flaws. After examining your teeth, we'll let you know if you're a good candidate for veneers or if you should consider another restoration. Chances are, though, veneers could be your way to achieve what Aaron Judge did—a home run smile.
If you would like more information about porcelain veneers, please contact us or schedule a consultation. To learn more, read the Dear Doctor magazine article “Porcelain Veneers: Strength & Beauty As Never Before.”
Ever wonder just exactly what causes cavities? Once upon a time, “Toothworms” — miniscule, yet relentless pests — were thought to be responsible for this widespread malady. This belief persisted from ancient times through the 17th Century; William Shakespeare even made reference to the baneful beasts in his play Much Ado about Nothing. (“What, sigh for a toothache? [It] is but a humor or a worm.”) Today, however, we know why no one ever observed an honest-to-goodness toothworm: it’s because they’re much too tiny to see with the naked eye.
Actually, it isn’t worms, but much smaller organisms that cause tooth decay. These harmful plaque bacteria (along with many helpful microorganisms) live in the mouth, and build up on surfaces of the teeth when they aren’t cleaned properly. They feed on sugar in the diet, and release substances that erode tooth enamel, which causes small holes called cavities. Cavities, in turn, are what’s responsible for most toothaches.
While we may scoff at old legends, one fact remains: Even today, according to the National Institutes of Health, tooth decay is the number one chronic disease of both children and adults; and it’s almost entirely preventable. We can’t blame it on toothworms — but what can we do about it?
Glad you asked! The best way to avoid decay is through prevention. That means brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and flossing them every day. It also means eating a balanced diet and avoiding acidic and sugary foods — like soda, some juices, and sweet, sticky snacks. If you do consume these types of foods, limit them to mealtimes; that gives your saliva enough time in between to neutralize the acids naturally. And, of course, make an appointment see us twice a year for a complete check-up and professional cleaning.
If you do begin to notice the symptoms of tooth decay (toothache, for example) it’s important to come in to the dental office right away, so we can treat the problem before it gets worse. Prompt action can often help save a tooth that might otherwise be lost. Besides filling the cavity, we may be also able to recommend ways to help prevent the disease from affecting other teeth. And if you need a more extensive procedure to relieve the problem — such as a root canal — we can make sure you get the appropriate treatment.
We’ve come a long way since the “toothworm” days — but we can still do a lot more to make tooth decay a thing of the past.
If you would like more information about tooth decay and cavity prevention, please contact us or schedule an appointment. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Decay — The World’s Oldest & Most Widespread Disease” and “Tooth Decay — How To Assess Your Risk.”
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