Top Dentists 2012: New Technology to Make You Smile

Philly brainiacs are busy cooking up cool new gadgets to make your next trip to the dentist a lot more pleasant. Here, four ouch-inducing practices that are going out of fashion (buh-bye, anesthetic needle) thanks to innovations worth smiling about.

>> We’re previewing content from our Top Dentists 2012 issue all week long. Want to see it in print? Check out the February issue of Philly Mag on newsstands Friday!

Out: Heavy Scalpels and Scrapers
In: Lasers

The horrible scraping administered by your hygienist could soon be made much less cringe-worthy. Joseph Roberts, a dentist in Rittenhouse, says lasers can zap bacteria with more precision and are especially promising for patients with periodontitis, an infection that can break down bone and a tooth’s connective tissue; left untreated, it destroys the tooth.

“Instead of having to peel the gum off the tooth, the laser allows for just the slightest opening,” says Roberts. “Then it goes back at the end and creates a thick blood clot, to allow bone to regrow with fewer complications.” Other benefits: less pain immediately following the procedure, and a speedier recovery. Only a few area specialists are using the technique now, but Roberts is hopeful it will become standard practice in a few years.

Out: Numbing Needles
In: Anesthetic Nasal Spray

Elliot Hersh, a pharmacology professor at Penn’s dental  school, is working on developing a new needle- free anesthetic, temporarily called Kovicaine. It works a lot like nasal spray: A simple spritz up the nose readies your upper teeth for fillings, cleanings  and gum procedures. An anti-anesthetic afterward gets your mouth back to normal within 90 minutes, meaning you don’t have to walk around with a droopy lip all day. Hersh hopes to have his product on the market within three years.

Out: Plaster
In: 3-D Technology

Bob Diecidue and Daniel Taub, both with the oral surgery department at Jefferson Hospital, are using cone-beam CAT scans to make three-dimensional models of their patients’ teeth. Unlike old-school plaster molds that crumble and leave a bad taste in your mouth, these scans let dentists view the bone structure under your gums, so they can better map out surgical procedures ahead of time. “Previously, you might open up the area and realize you have to do something else, like bone grafting,” says Taub. “These scans decrease the need for multiple surgeries.”

Out: False Teeth
In: Organically Grown Implants

Need an implant? Say goodbye to the ceramic, titanium or enamel replacements that dentists arduously screw into your gaps. Denis Kinane, dean of Penn’s dental school, says researchers across the globe are growing stem cells that produce dentin and enamel and eventually mature into tooth-like structures. Some researchers are even starting on work that will let your dentist plant a frozen dental bud in your mouth and stimulate the cells so a new tooth grows into the gap. The chompers are far from clinical approval, but Kinane says preliminary work is promising: A few have already sprouted in labs.