Pain-Free Dentists: Fact or Fiction?

Beyond Novocain: In the old days Novocain was the only game in town. Now dentists have an array of more effective local anesthetics to choose from. Lidocaine, for example, makes your gums more numb and, if the procedure requires it, for a longer period of time without needing multiple shots. Lidocaine also stays put better, so that the doctor doesn't have to numb more than the area he's working on.

Widespread use of composites or porcelain: These tooth-colored fillings not only look better than the old metal fillings that used to be standard, they're better for your teeth.

In order to fit a metal filling, the dentist must dig deep and wide enough into the tooth to create a place to wedge the silver in. These "undercuts" ultimately weaken the tooth, which may start cracking and then require a crown. Dentists don't have to drill as much tooth with composites, because they are bound to the tooth with adhesive.

Electric, rather than air-driven drills: Some people cringe at the sound of the high-pitched whine of the drill. New, high-end drills are not only less noisy, but they vibrate less.

Digital X-rays: Remember those too-big-for-your-jaw pieces of cardboard you had to bite on? Go digital and some say your tongue won't feel like it's being dug out of its root. Skinny plates made of phosphorus have only been in wide use for about four to five years, says Robert Hodous, who heads up The Dental Spa in Arkansas. Although it has a fancy name, Hodous' practice focuses less on Hollywood extras and more on cutting-edge dental technology.

Still, it should be pointed out that researchers agree discomfort and pain often start in the mind. A dentist who puts you at ease could be worth, to some, hundreds of thousands in new equipment.

Mike Herbert, who took over his father's practice in upstate New York, said, "I have a patient who wanted digital X-rays. But I have state-of-the-art [traditional] equipment and don't see the point in replacing it yet. Some people will only be satisfied if they have the newest and the best."

Looking Ahead

So now that many dentists can offer virtually pain-free visits, what lies ahead in the world of smiles? Stem cells, says Punwani. "Through stem cells we are already able to produce dentin and enamel in the lab. I'm guessing that in about 10 years we would be able to go there."

That's good news for The Hypochondriac. Now if they could only grow gum tissue.

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