Cleanings, Fillings and More: Common General Dental Procedures
General dentistry procedures start with the most basic of care and work through a variety of treatment options to prevent and treat common oral health issues. Your general dentist’s job is to educate patients about oral hygiene, deliver preventive treatment against periodontal (gum) disease and dental caries (tooth decay), provide additional services as needed for more advanced dental problems and refer patients with additional needs to the appropriate specialist for further dental treatment.
Preventive General Dentistry Procedures
The most common general dentistry procedure is a basic dental exam and cleaning. Keeping the teeth and gums clean and bacteria free is the best way to prevent gum disease and cavities. A typical exam and cleaning will take under an hour, and should be pain free, depending on the patient’s dental care history and at-home oral hygiene routines.
“As a family dentist, the goal is to diagnose and treat our patients to ensure optimal oral and overall health,” says Jana Gyurina, DDS, who has 26 years of experience and practices family, general and cosmetic dentistry at Oak Park Dental in Madison, WI. “Regular care is needed to maintain oral health and detect conditions early.”
While many patients let their scheduled visits to the dentist slide (often citing financial issues or fear of going to the dentist), not getting regular cleanings and exams can have unhappy consequences. “Problems caused by avoiding the dentist include increased risk for periodontal disease, increased risk for pain or dental emergencies and increased risk for decay,” Dr. Gyurina adds. “Cases which could have been easily treated as small problems become bigger problems.”
General Dental Procedures for Cavities
After exams and cleaning, the next most common issue general dentists treat is dental caries, also known as tooth decay or cavities. Tooth decay occurs when bacteria, acid, food debris and saliva combine to form plaque. The plaque clings to teeth, eating through the enamel (the hard outside part of the tooth) and then the dentin (the softer inner portion of the tooth). The result is holes in the teeth which let more bacteria in, and the problem becomes more and more severe.
There is a variety of different treatments for dental caries depending on the extent of decay. For small surface cavities, the decayed portion of the tooth can be easily removed by drilling and the hole filled with silver alloy, gold, porcelain or composite resin. Silver/mercury amalgams were extremely popular for years as a cheap solution, but many dentists now dislike using them and prefer composite fillings.
“Amalgams crack teeth,” says Maria M. Swedberg, DDS, who has 29 years of experience and practices at Dentistry With a Woman’s Touch in Toms River, NJ. “Composites seal cracks in teeth. When it comes to dental procedures, I practice the WIDIOM rule – Would I Do It On Me? – and strive to provide complete, lasting dentistry to each and every patient.”
Many patients with silver amalgams do experience fracturing of their fillings and the surrounding tooth surface later in life. Bacteria creep in below the filling, eating inward towards the root of the tooth and eventually causing infection. These “hidden” cavities are often overlooked by dentist-shy patients until the weakened tooth breaks and they find themselves requiring an expensive root canal – or worse, with an unsalvageable tooth that must be extracted.
“Frequent dental visits can diagnose caries before they become deep and require root canals or extractions,” reminds Dr. Swedberg. “Periodontal problems can also be treated non-surgically if treated early.”
Advanced General Dentistry Procedures
When a tooth is badly decayed or damaged, a filling may not be enough to stabilize it and restore its function. In such cases, a cap or crown may be created out of all metal, all ceramic (porcelain) or porcelain fused to metal. The decay or old filling is cleaned out of the affected tooth, impressions made and a temporary cap put in place. A customized crown is created with a chewing surface that matches the other teeth and is fitted to the patient at a subsequent visit.
If a tooth must be completely extracted due to decay or breakage, the empty gap must be filled or the teeth on either side will start to shift and will eventually loosen or break as well. A general dentist can place crowns on the adjacent teeth, then affix a bridge between the two to support the remaining teeth and provide a natural chewing surface.
Other General Dental Procedures
Some general dentists have received additional training and can perform additional dental procedures such as periodontal therapy (to treat gum disease), prosthetic fittings (dentures) and endodontic procedures (root canals). General dentists can also diagnose advanced dental problems, refer patients to various specialists and prescribe medications such as pain relievers and antibiotics.
Other dental treatment and services that may be offered by your general dentist include cosmetic dental procedures such as tooth whitening, veneers and even dental implants. If your family dentist doesn’t offer these services, he or she can refer you to someone who can.