A Guide to Air Abrasion

For many years, most dentists have been using the drill to clear away decay. As a patient, you don’t really feel as though you have much choice. You hear the familiar sound of the drill and you just try to think about how much better you will feel when that cavity is filled and that toothache has gone.

But what if there was a choice? What if your decay could be cleared away from your tooth by using a treatment that was painless?

This advanced technique is called Air Abrasion. The strangest thing about air abrasion is that it was first used by dentists in the 1950s. But it is only recently that products have been redeveloped to become more commercially viable and more widely available. Now, increasing numbers of dentists are exploring air abrasion products as a serious, more patient-friendly alternative to drilling.

During air abrasion treatment, your dentist will blast away decay from the affected tooth by using compressed air. Rather than a drill, your dentist has a handheld nozzle through which small particles of a neutral substance like silica are fired. The nozzle is used to aim these particles at the affected areas of the tooth. Once the decay has been removed from the tooth, it is hoovered up and out of the mouth and disposed of by using a dental vacuum.

More and more, you will find that air abrasion techniques are available through dentists that offer a ‘gentle’ approach to dentistry. These sorts of practices are increasingly popular, especially with children who are afraid of the dentist or who adult patients who suffer from a dental phobia. They are usually welcoming, friendly and relaxing places, where dentists have access to an array of painless dental techniques, sedatives and preventative dentistry.

Air abrasion is prized by gentle dentists because not only is it less painful than the traditional dental drill, it also removes the high, whining noise that the dental drill makes. Many patients associate this noise with pain, so just the sound of it can cause anxiety and stress. As well as being quiet, there is also no sense of pressure or vibration with air abrasion.

Air abrasion also offers a number of other advantages. First of all, it leaves as much of the healthy tooth intact as possible. When drilling the decay out of a rotten tooth, your dentist may have to drill some of the tooth away to open up the cavity and reach the decay. Air abrasion simply blasts away the decay without damaging the rest of the tooth. In the future, it also means that there is a reduced risk of the treated tooth becoming split or fractured, as it has not been weakened by intensive and invasive drilling.

Because air abrasion is a much less traumatic approach than dental drilling, it also means that it can save time if you have a number of teeth that need decay removing. By using air abrasion, your dentist can treat all of the teeth on the same visit. There is no pain and, often, there is not even any need for anaesthetic, so a number of teeth can easily be treated altogether.

Air abrasion techniques are totally safe. Your dentist may ask you to wear protected glasses and a rubber dam to protect your mouth. It is also a relatively quick procedure to complete, compared to conventional drilling techniques.

However, there are some disadvantages to air abrasion and it is not necessarily suitable for every scenario where drilling would otherwise be required. For example, deep cavities cannot always be remedied by air abrasion. The techniques of ‘blasting’ away the decay really only works successfully when the decay is stil very close to the surface of the teeth. Often, air abrasion is recommended by dentists simply as a preventative measure, to remove decay before it has created cavities and the need for fillings. This preventative approach is ideal for children.

It is also important to remember that air abrasion in not totally painless. While it is much less painful than conventional drilling, it can cause sensitivity in the teeth which some patients find uncomfortable.

If your dentist agrees with you that air abrasion is a suitable treatment for your cavities, you should also discuss with them what other treatment you will need. Air abrasion removes the decay, but the cavity will usually remain (unless the air abrasion is used as a preventative measure, before cavities build up) and it will need to be filled. Usually, composite fillings work best with air abrasion because the composite material sticks best to teeth which air abrasion will have made much smoother.