Over the last century and a half millions of people have had a tooth cavity filled with “silver” amalgam. Perhaps you’re one of them. The use of this effective and durable filling has declined in recent years, but only because of the development of more attractive tooth-colored materials.
At the same time there’s another issue that’s been brewing in recent years about this otherwise dependable metal alloy: the inclusion of mercury in amalgam, about half of its starting mixture. Various studies have shown mercury exposure can have a cumulative toxic effect on humans. As a result, you may already be heeding warnings to limit certain seafood in your diet.
So, should you be equally concerned about amalgam fillings — even going so far as to have any existing ones removed?
Before taking such a drastic step, let’s look at the facts. To begin with, not all forms of mercury are equally toxic. The form causing the most concern is called methylmercury, a compound formed when mercury released in the environment combines with organic molecules. This is the form certain large fish like salmon and tuna ingest, which we then ingest when we eat them. Methylmercury can accumulate in the body’s tissues where at high levels it can damage various organ systems.
Dental amalgam, on the other hand, uses elemental mercury. Dentists take it in liquid form and mix it with a powder of other metals like silver, tin and copper to create a pliable paste. After it’s placed in a prepared cavity, the amalgam hardens into a compound in which the mercury interlaces with the other metals and becomes “trapped.”
Although over time the filling may emit trace amounts of mercury vapor, it’s well below harmful levels. You’re more likely to encounter “un-trapped” mercury in your diet than from a dental filling. And scores of studies over amalgam’s 150-year history have produced no demonstrable ill effects due to mercury.
Although it now competes with more attractive materials, amalgam still fills (no pun intended) a necessary role. Dentists frequently use amalgam in less visible back teeth, which encounter higher chewing pressures than front teeth. So, if you already have an amalgam filling or we recommend one to you, relax — you’re really in no danger of mercury poisoning.
Tooth loss is a problem that affects many seniors—and since May is Older Americans Month, this is a good time to talk about it. Did you know that more than a quarter of adults over age 75 have lost all of their natural teeth? This not only affects their quality of life but poses a significant health risk.
According to a study in The Journal of Prosthodontics, significant tooth loss is associated with increased risk for malnutrition—and also for obesity. If this seems like a contradiction, consider that when you have few or no teeth, it’s much easier to eat soft, starchy foods of little nutritional value than it is to eat nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables. If all of your teeth are missing, it’s especially critical to replace them as soon as possible.
There are several ways to replace a full set of missing teeth, including removable dentures, overdentures, and fixed dentures:
Removable dentures are the classic replacement teeth that you put in during the day and take out at night. (However, if you suffer from sleep apnea, research has found that keeping dentures in at night may help keep the airway open, so if you have this condition, be sure to mention it to your doctor and dentist it). Dentures have come a long way in terms of how convincing they look, but they still have some disadvantages: For one thing, they take some getting used to—particularly while eating. Also, wearing removable dentures can slowly wear away the bone that they rest on. As that bone gradually shrinks over time, the dentures cease to fit well and require periodic adjustment (re-lining) or a remake.
Overdentures are removable dentures that attach onto a few strategically placed dental implants, which are small titanium posts placed in the bone beneath your gums. Strong and secure, implants prevent the denture from slipping when you wear it. Implants also slow the rate of bone loss mentioned above, which should allow the denture to fit better over a longer period of time. The ability to maintain hygiene is easier because you can remove them for cleaning.
Fixed implant-supported dentures are designed to stay in your mouth all the time, and are the closest thing to having your natural teeth back. An entire row of fixed (non-removable) replacement teeth can usually be held in place by 4-6 dental implants. Dental implant surgery is an in-office procedure performed with the type of anesthesia that’s right for you. After implants have been placed and have integrated with your jaw bone—generally after a few months—you can enjoy all of your favorite foods again without worry or embarrassment.
If you would like more information about tooth-replacement options, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Overdentures & Fixed Dentures” and “Removable Full Dentures.”
Sometimes, looking at old pictures can really bring memories back to life. Just ask Stefani Germanotta—the pop diva better known as Lady Gaga. In one scene from the recent documentary Five Foot Two, as family members sort through headshots from her teen years, her father proclaims: "Here, this proves she had braces!"
"If I had kept that gap, then I would have even more problems with Madonna," Lady Gaga replies, referencing an ongoing feud between the two musical celebrities.
The photos of Gaga's teenage smile reveal that the singer of hits like "Born This Way" once had a noticeable gap (which dentists call a diastema) between her front teeth. This condition is common in children, but often becomes less conspicuous with age. It isn't necessarily a problem: Lots of well-known people have extra space in their smiles, including ex-football player and TV host Michael Strahan, actress Anna Paquin…and fellow pop superstar Madonna. It hasn't hurt any of their careers.
Yet others would prefer a smile without the gap. Fortunately, diastema in children is generally not difficult to fix. One of the easiest ways to do so is with traditional braces or clear aligners. These orthodontic appliances, usually worn for a period of months, can actually move the teeth into positions that look more pleasing in the smile and function better in the bite. For many people, orthodontic treatment is a part of their emergence from adolescence into adulthood.
Braces and aligners, along with other specialized orthodontic appliances, can also remedy many bite problems besides diastema. They can correct misaligned teeth and spacing irregularities, fix overbites and underbites, and take care of numerous other types of malocclusions (bite problems).
The American Association of Orthodontists recommends that kids get screened for orthodontic problems at age 7. Even if an issue is found, most won't get treatment at this age—but in some instances, it's possible that early intervention can save a great deal of time, money and effort later. For example, while the jaw is still developing, its growth can be guided with special appliances that can make future orthodontic treatment go quicker and easier.
Yet orthodontics isn't just for children—adults can wear braces too! As long as teeth and gums are healthy, there's no upper age limit on orthodontic treatment. Instead of traditional silver braces, many adults choose tooth-colored braces or clear aligners to complement their more professional appearance.
So if your child is at the age where screening is recommended—or if you're unhappy with your own smile—ask us whether orthodontics could help. But if you get into a rivalry with Madonna…you're on your own.
If you have questions about orthodontic treatment, please contact our office or schedule a consultation. You can read more in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “The Magic of Orthodontics” and “Orthodontics For The Older Adult.”
Dental caries (tooth decay) is a leading cause of tooth loss. But with prompt diagnosis and care we can often stop it before it causes too much damage.
The traditional treatment approach is simple: remove all diseased tooth structure and then restore the tooth with a filling. But this otherwise effective treatment has one drawback: you may lose significant healthy structure to accommodate a suitable filling or to make vulnerable areas easier to clean from bacterial plaque.
That's why a new treatment approach called minimally invasive dentistry (MID) is becoming more common. The goal of MID is to remove as little of a tooth's natural enamel and dentin as possible. This leaves the treated tooth stronger and healthier, and could reduce long-term dental costs too.
Here's how MID could change your future dental care.
Better risk assessment. MID includes a treatment protocol called caries management by risk assessment (CAMBRA). With CAMBRA, we evaluate your individual tooth decay risk, including oral bacteria levels, the quality of saliva flow to neutralize mouth acid, and sugar consumption. We then use our findings to customize a treatment plan that targets your areas of highest risk.
New detection methods. The real key to fighting tooth decay is to find it before it can destroy tooth structure with the help of new diagnostic technology. Besides advances in x-ray imaging that provide better views with less radiation exposure, we're also using powerful dental microscopes, lasers and infrared photography to show us more about your teeth than we can see with the naked eye.
"Less is More" treatments. In contrast to the dental drill, many dentists are now using air abrasion rather than a dental drill to remove decayed tooth material. Air abrasion emits tiny material particles within a pressurized air stream that leaves more healthy tooth structure intact than with drilling. We're also using new filling materials like composite resin that not only resemble natural tooth color, but require less structural removal than other types of fillings.
Using MID, we can treat tooth decay while preserving more of your natural teeth. This promises better long-term outcomes for future dental health.
If you would like more information on new treatments for 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 “Minimally Invasive Dentistry: When Less Care is More.”
Your gums not only support and protect your teeth they also help present them in a visually attractive way. But some people’s gums seem to stand out too much — what’s commonly called a gummy smile — which diminishes their smile appeal. There’s no precise definition, but as a rule of thumb we consider a smile too gummy if four or more millimeters (about an eighth of an inch) of the gums show.
Fortunately, there are some techniques to improve a gummy smile. Which technique is best for you, though, will depend on why the gums are prominent — and causes vary. For example, you could have a gummy smile because your teeth appear too short compared to your gums.
Permanent teeth normally erupt to about 10 mm of visible length. But less than that, say 8 mm, could skew the visible proportion of gums to teeth too much toward the gums. Teeth can also appear shorter due to accelerated wear caused by grinding habits. Another cause could be the amount of upper lip rise when you smile. The lip may rise too high in a condition called hypermobility. This could reveal too much of the gums when you smile.
It’s important then to match the treatment to the cause. For example, we can enhance the appearance of shorter teeth through a surgical procedure known as crown lengthening.Â During this procedure a surgeon reshapes the gum tissues and underlying bone to expose more of the tooth’s length.
For upper lip hypermobility, we can restrict movement with Botox, a drug that paralyzes tiny parts of the involved muscles. This approach, though, will wear off in a few months — a more permanent solution is surgery to reposition the muscle attachments so as to prevent excessive movement.
If you’re concerned about a gummy smile, see us for a full examination and consultation. Once we know the reason why, we can offer a solution that will make your smile more attractive.
If you would like more information on enhancing the appearance of your gums, 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 “Gummy Smiles.”
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