Lasers have been around in dentistry since 1989 and have a number of different uses.
What are lasers used for?
Lasers are especially good for minimally invasive dentistry.
Tooth decay. Lasers can help detect cavities and can remove decay within a tooth and prepare the surrounding enamel for a filling. If you're having a white filling, a laser will be used to harden the material once it's placed in the cavity. Lasers cannot be used on silver coloured mercury fillings because they vaporise the filling and create a harmful gas.
Gum disease. Lasers can be used to reshape gums and remove inflamed gum tissue or bacteria. They can also help treat infections in root canals.
Biopsy. Lasers can be used to remove pieces of tissue for laboratory testing to look for signs of cancer.
Lesion removal. Lasers can remove lesions in the mouth and relieve pain from mouth ulcers.
Teeth whitening. This newer procedure takes less time than other treatments, usually only about an hour in the dentist's surgery. It is known as laser or power whitening. A bleaching agent is painted onto the surface of your teeth. It is then 'activated' by a laser shone on your teeth to speed up the whitening process. Because it is mostly cosmetic, this treatment isn't usually available on the NHS.
Wisdom teeth. Lasers can help expose partially erupted wisdom teeth.
How do lasers work?
A laser delivers energy in the form of a very narrow but intense beam of light. In dentistry it can be used to:
- Cut or vaporise the tissue that it comes into contact with
- Strengthen the bond between a filling and a tooth
- Act as a heat source to speed up teeth whitening procedures.
Compared to the traditional dental drill, lasers:
- May, in some instances, cause less pain, so reduce the need for anaesthetic and make the trip to the dentist a more relaxed experience
- May reduce anxiety in people uncomfortable with the sound of a dental drill
- Minimise bleeding and swelling during soft tissue treatments and reduce healing time
- May preserve more of a healthy tooth during cavity removal as lasers can be more precise
- Minimise the possibility of bacterial infections because the high-energy beam sterilises the area being worked on
- May be used to seal tubules on the root of the tooth which are responsible for hot and cold tooth sensitivity.
The disadvantages of lasers are:
- They can't be used on teeth with fillings already in place
- There are a number of common procedures for which they are unsuitable, including filling cavities located between teeth or around old fillings, or for larger cavities being prepared for crowns
- Traditional drills may still be needed to shape a filling, adjust the bite and polish the filling
- Anaesthetic may still be necessary
- Laser equipment may be more expensive for dentists to buy and so lead to more expensive treatments
- For safety reasons eyes must be protected when lasers are used which is why your dentist may ask you to wear special protective glasses.