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.
Fans of the primetime TV show The Middle were delighted to see that high school senior Sue, played by Eden Sher, finally got her braces off at the start of Season 6. But since this popular sitcom wouldn’t be complete without some slapstick comedy, this happy event is not without its trials and tribulations: The episode ends with Sue’s whole family diving into a dumpster in search of the teen’s lost retainer. Sue finds it in the garbage and immediately pops it in her mouth. But wait — it doesn’t fit, it’s not even hers!
If you think this scenario is far-fetched, guess again. OK, maybe the part about Sue not washing the retainer upon reclaiming it was just a gag (literally and figuratively), but lost retainers are all too common. Unfortunately, they’re also expensive to replace — so they need to be handled with care. What’s the best way to do that? Retainers should be brushed daily with a soft toothbrush and liquid soap (dish soap works well), and then placed immediately back in your mouth or into the case that came with the retainer. When you are eating a meal at a restaurant, do not wrap your retainer in a napkin and leave it on the table — this is a great way to lose it! Instead, take the case with you, and keep the retainer in it while you’re eating. When you get home, brush your teeth and then put the retainer back in your mouth.
If you do lose your retainer though, let us know right away. Retention is the last step of your orthodontic treatment, and it’s extremely important. You’ve worked hard to get a beautiful smile, and no one wants to see that effort wasted. Yet if you neglect to wear your retainer as instructed, your teeth are likely to shift out of position. Why does this happen?
As you’ve seen firsthand, teeth aren’t rigidly fixed in the jaw — they can be moved in response to light and continuous force. That’s what orthodontic appliances do: apply the right amount of force in a carefully controlled manner. But there are other forces at work on your teeth that can move them in less predictable ways. For example, normal biting and chewing can, over time, cause your teeth to shift position. To get teeth to stay where they’ve been moved orthodontically, new bone needs to form around them and anchor them where they are. That will happen over time, but only if they are held in place with a retainer. That’s why it is so important to wear yours as directed — and notify us immediately if it gets lost.
And if ever you do have to dig your retainer out of a dumpster… be sure to wash it before putting in in your mouth!
If you would like more information on retainers, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers” and “Why Orthodontic Retainers?”
Accidents happen, especially to teenagers involved with sports or similar activities. In an instant they can lose one or more teeth and permanently alter their smile.
Fortunately we can restore a teenager’s lost teeth, but often not immediately as a permanent restoration with a dental implant requires maturity of their jaw structure. Our focus then turns to the age of the patient and the condition of the underlying bone. A future dental implant, your best choice for tooth replacement, depends on bone for support, but also the age of the patient as it relates to jaw development.
There are a couple of ways an accidental tooth loss can harm supporting bone: first and foremost, the impact of the accident itself can damage the bony socket. To find out for sure we may need to perform a cone beam scan, a type of x-ray that allows us to view the area three-dimensionally. If we do find damage, we can attempt to repair the socket through bone grafting.
Bone can also suffer from the long-term absence of a tooth. Bone has a growth cycle in which older cells dissolve and new ones form to take their place. The force generated by teeth when we eat or chew helps stimulate this growth. Without stimulation, as with a missing tooth, the bone may not grow at a healthy rate. In time, it could lose some of its volume and density and not be able to support an implant.
Installing an implant right after tooth loss could help avoid this situation. Bone has a natural affinity with the titanium post imbedded in the jaw and will naturally grow and adhere to it. But we can’t place an implant with a teenager. This is because the jaw is still developing so an implant would gradually become misaligned as the jaw grows. It’s best to install an implant later after full jaw development in early adulthood.
Today, we can place a bone graft in the empty socket right after tooth loss. The graft serves as a scaffold for bone cells to grow on and will help keep the bone volume at a healthy level until we can install an implant.
Timing is everything in restoring a teenager’s accidental tooth loss. But with coordination and care for the supporting bone, a teenager can eventually enter their adult years with their smile intact.
If you would like more information on restoring your teenager’s smile after tooth loss, 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 “Dental Implants for Teenagers.”
In her decades-long career, renowned actress Kathy Bates has won Golden Globes, Emmys, and many other honors. Bates began acting in her twenties, but didn't achieve national recognition until she won the best actress Oscar for Misery — when she was 42 years old! “I was told early on that because of my physique and my look, I'd probably blossom more in my middle age,” she recently told Dear Doctor magazine. “[That] has certainly been true.” So if there's one lesson we can take from her success, it might be that persistence pays off.
When it comes to her smile, Kathy also recognizes the value of persistence. Now 67, the veteran actress had orthodontic treatment in her 50's to straighten her teeth. Yet she is still conscientious about wearing her retainer. “I wear a retainer every night,” she said. “I got lazy about it once, and then it was very difficult to put the retainer back in. So I was aware that the teeth really do move.”
Indeed they do. In fact, the ability to move teeth is what makes orthodontic treatment work. By applying consistent and gentle forces, the teeth can be shifted into better positions in the smile. That's called the active stage of orthodontic treatment. Once that stage is over, another begins: the retention stage. The purpose of retention is to keep that straightened smile looking as good as it did when the braces came off. And that's where the retainer comes in.
There are several different kinds of retainers, but all have the same purpose: To hold the teeth in their new positions and keep them from shifting back to where they were. We sometimes say teeth have a “memory” — not literally, but in the sense that if left alone, teeth tend to migrate back to their former locations. And if you've worn orthodontic appliances, like braces or aligners, that means right back where you started before treatment.
By holding the teeth in place, retainers help stabilize them in their new positions. They allow new bone and ligaments to re-form and mature around them, and give the gums time to remodel themselves. This process can take months to years to be complete. But you may not need to wear a retainer all the time: Often, removable retainers are worn 24 hours a day at first; later they are worn only at night. We will let you know what's best in your individual situation.
So take a tip from Kathy Bates, star of the hit TV series American Horror Story, and wear your retainer as instructed. That's the best way to keep your straight new smile from changing back to the way it was — and to keep a bad dream from coming true.
If you would like more information about orthodontic retainers, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more about this topic in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Why Orthodontic Retainers?” and “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.” The interview with Kathy Bates appears in the latest issue of Dear Doctor.
With college, a full-time job and an upcoming wedding to plan, Brooke Vitense had the hectic life of an average young woman in her twenties. But a chance discovery one morning would completely upend her normal life.
That morning Brook noticed white spots on the underside of her tongue while brushing her teeth. Not long after, she pointed out the spots to her dentist during her regular dental checkup. He recommended having the spots biopsied, just to be safe. She needed a wisdom tooth removed, so she scheduled the biopsy with her oral surgeon to coincide with the tooth extraction.
She soon forgot about the biopsy — until her dentist contacted her about the results. The lesions were pre-cancerous: he recommended she have them and a portion of her tongue removed surgically as soon as possible.
She underwent the procedure, but that wasn't the end of her ordeal. The follow-up pathology report indicated cancerous cells in the tissue excised during the procedure. To ensure elimination of any remaining cancerous cells they would need to remove more of her tongue as well as the lymph nodes from her neck.
Brooke survived her cancer experience and has since resumed her life. Her story, though, highlights some important facts about oral cancer.
Oral cancer is life-threatening. Although cases of oral cancer are rarer than other types of malignancies, the survival rate is low (50%). This is because lesions or other abnormalities are often dismissed as simple sores. Like any cancer, the earlier it's detected and treated, the better the chances for survival.
Anyone of any age can develop oral cancer. While most cases occur in older adults, young and otherwise healthy people like Brooke are not immune. It's important for everyone to make healthy lifestyle choices (good oral hygiene and nutrition, moderate alcohol use and avoidance of tobacco) and see a dentist whenever you see an abnormal sore or spot in your mouth.
Regular dental checkups are crucial for early detection. Had Brooke not seen her dentist soon after discovering the spots on her tongue, her survivability could have been drastically lower. Regular dental visits (and cancer screenings if you're at high risk) could mean all the difference in the world.
If you would like more information on the signs and treatment of oral cancer, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can watch Brooke's interview by visiting How a Routine Dental Visit Saved My Life
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