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With all the new tooth-colored fillings for cavities, it’s easy to overlook metal amalgam. While this mainstay of dental care for over a century might not be as attractive as composite resins or glass and resin ionomers, it still has the advantage of strength and durability.
Amalgam is a stable metal alloy usually made up of silver, tin, copper and mercury. The metals are proportioned and mixed precisely to guard against “free” mercury molecules, which could pose a health hazard. The mixture is pliable at first, but then sets hard once molded into the prepared area of the tooth.
Besides strength, amalgam’s other advantages include low cost, high resistance to wear and biocompatibility (not toxic to the body or allergy-producing). At the same time, it can require more tooth structure removal to accommodate a filling and cause higher sensitivity to temperature for a while after installation. Its main disadvantage, however, is appearance — it’s now considered unacceptable from an aesthetic point of view to use it in visible areas like the front teeth.
Because of this, materials resembling natural tooth color are coming into vogue, especially as their strength improves. Still, dental amalgam continues to play a useful role, especially in less visible back teeth with higher chewing forces.
One past concern about dental amalgam is the inclusion of mercury in the alloy. As mentioned before, mercury is hazardous in a “free” form when not knit microscopically with other metals; as such it can emit a vapor that could enter the bloodstream and damage the nervous system. But after several studies by various organizations, the American Dental Association has concluded amalgam’s precise mixture prevents the mercury from taking this form: although some vapor is given off during chewing it’s far too low in concentration to pose any danger.
Dental amalgam continues to be an effective choice for fillings. Whether it’s the right choice for you will depend on the type and location of a tooth to be filled, and whether durability is a higher concern than appearance. If we do recommend an amalgam filling, you can be assured it’s a safe and lasting choice.
Want to know the exact wrong way to pry open a stubborn lid? Just ask Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC-TV’s popular “Tonight Show.” When the 40-year-old funnyman had trouble opening a tube of scar tissue repair gel with his hands, he decided to try using his teeth.
What happened next wasn’t funny: Attempting to remove the cap, Fallon chipped his front tooth, adding another medical problem to the serious finger injury he suffered a few weeks before (the same wound he was trying to take care of with the gel). If there’s a moral to this story, it might be this: Use the right tool for the job… and that tool isn’t your teeth!
Yet Fallon is hardly alone in his dilemma. According to the American Association of Endodontists, chipped teeth account for the majority of dental injuries. Fortunately, modern dentistry offers a number of great ways to restore damaged teeth.
If the chip is relatively small, it’s often possible to fix it with cosmetic bonding. In this procedure, tough, natural-looking resin is used to fill in the part of the tooth that has been lost. Built up layer by layer, the composite resin is cured with a special light until it’s hard, shiny… and difficult to tell from your natural teeth. Best of all, cosmetic bonding can often be done in one office visit, with little or no discomfort. It can last for up to ten years, so it’s great for kids who may be getting more permanent repairs later.
For larger chips or cracks, veneers or crowns may be suggested. Veneers are wafer-thin porcelain coverings that go over the entire front surface of one or more teeth. They can be used to repair minor to moderate defects, such as chips, discolorations, or spacing irregularities. They can also give you the “Hollywood white” smile you’ve seen on many celebrities.
Veneers are generally custom-made in a lab, and require more than one office visit. Because a small amount of tooth structure must be removed in order to put them in place, veneers are considered an irreversible treatment. But durable and long-lasting veneers are the restorations of choice for many people.
Crowns (also called caps) are used when even more of the tooth structure is missing. They can replace the entire visible part of the tooth, as long as the tooth’s roots remain viable. Crowns, like veneers, are custom-fabricated to match your teeth in size, shape and color; they are generally made in a dental lab and require more than one office visit. However, teeth restored with crowns function well, look natural, and can last for many years.
So what happened to Jimmy Fallon? We aren’t sure which restoration he received… but we do know that he was back on TV the same night, flashing a big smile.