One of the newer innovations in dental treatment is the use of lasers. They're not as cool as lightsabers, but are still a useful tool for a dentist. Unfortunately lasers are yet to completely replace the faithful drill, but they're getting there.
The laser I use at work comes out of hiding about once a month. It works by sending a laser beam down a fibre optic cable, which is then focused about 1mm from the end of a glass tip. It fires in pulses, creating a "pop pop pop" sound which most patients seem to prefer to the whir of the drill. The energy of the laser pulse obliterates the tiny bit of tissue it is pointed at, be it gum, tooth, or bone.
There's a really long list of potential uses for lasers in dentistry. Soft tissue surgery, treatment of periodontal (gum) disease, root canal therapy, restorations (fillings), tooth whitening, aiding healing of cold sores and ulcers, haemorrhage control, disinfection, and even desensitisation of hypersensitive teeth. So why don't I use mine all day every day? There are some things the laser is fantastic at, and other things that while it is capable, the "old" ways are still easier and faster.
Replacing the knife
Minor oral surgery procedures become a snap using a laser. Some of the common ones are cosmetic gum lifts, removing that annoying gum flap left over your wisdom tooth, implant surgery, frenectomies, and gum surgery to allow for the placement of a crown. The laser is able to accurately cut through soft tissue with almost no bleeding, and it disinfects as it goes so healing time is very fast.
The laser itself doesn't whiten teeth. What it can do is provide a blast of energy to the whitening gel on the teeth to make the chemical reaction work faster. The result is less time in the chair to achieve whiter teeth. The down side is that there tends to be more sensitivity experienced with laser whitening compared with the gel alone.
Replacing the drill?
The disappointing answer to this question is… not yet. Lasers are fantastic at slowly, gently and accurately cutting cavities in teeth. If there's a lot of decay or a large restoration to be replaced, it's significantly faster to use the conventional drill. Dental lasers are also not capable of removing metal, so replacement of any gold or amalgam restorations can't be done. I only use the laser for a restoration if I really need to make as tiny a hole as possible. It's also helpful for children or very nervous adults who need small restorations, as the psychological benefits of not using a drill help them to relax. For small restorations, I've also found that we can sometimes avoid the need for injecting local anaesthetic when using the laser, as it tends to desensitise the tooth as it goes.
I believe it's a fair way off before a dentist will be able to throw out a lot of his/her tools in favour of a laser. With each new model though, lasers are becoming more versatile and more efficient. There's certainly a drive from consumers for this technology to be developed further. Why not ask your dentist if a laser will be helpful in your next course of dental treatment?