Can Advancements in Dental Imaging Save Your Life?

February 08, 2018

Dentist looking at an x-ray with a patient

The evolution of technology over the last few decades has been nothing short of incredible. The dental imaging industry is no exception to this advancement, and what’s available to practitioners today is truly leaps and bounds beyond the routine X-rays they’ve been using for years.

But, from a patient’s perspective, what impact does all this technology have on the quality of their dental care? Does any of it matter?

In short, it does. The following summary of an in-depth research study by Dr. Naseem Shah puts the situation in perspective:

“Radiographs are a valuable diagnostic tool, as an adjunct to clinical examination in the diagnosis of dental diseases. Two dimensional periapical and panoramic radiographs are routinely used in dental practice. However, there are certain limitations of two-dimensional radiographs, which can be overcome by three-dimensional, imaging techniques such as cone beam computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound… Correct use of newer radiographic techniques, where indicated, can help early detection and appropriate and timely treatment for various dental and oral pathologies.”

In other words, while X-ray machines and similar imaging procedures have an appropriate place in every dental practice, there are oral health diseases they can overlook. But, many of these diseases can be caught by more advanced imaging technologies that have recently been developed.

Let’s look into some details:

The birth of dental imaging technologies

First discovered in 1895, X-rays were first applied to dental imaging the very next year when Dr. Otto Walkhoff produced a roentgenogram (X-ray photograph) of his own mouth. The breakthrough required a (now frightening) 25-minute exposure to the little-understood radiation. Fortunately, as research continued and photographic techniques improved, doctors recognized the need to dramatically limit exposure time while still benefiting from the power X-rays supplied:

"While X-ray machines and similar imaging procedures have an appropriate place in every dental practice, there are oral health diseases they can overlook."

For the first time in human history, man could actually see inside the body without needing to cut it open. It sounds strange in this day and age, but prior the introduction of X-ray technology, all of mankind’s knowledge of anatomy came from dissecting corpses. As a result, when a living person complained of internal pain or inflammation — such as a toothache — it was up to doctors and dentists to make educated guesses based on what they’d seen in dead bodies.

With X-rays, they could take a picture of the affected body part and often confirm or deny various diagnoses based on what they saw. In the case of a toothache, an X-ray could clearly indicate hairline fractures of the teeth, dental caries, abscesses, decay inside the root or beneath the gum line, and much more.

But, as important a step as that was, dental imaging has come a long way since then.

Dental imaging matures

Moving far beyond simple X-rays, the imaging techniques used by dental professionals can be split into the following categories:

  • Intraoral and extraoral
  • Analog and digital
  • Ionizing and non-ionizing
  • Two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D)

As you can probably guess, intraoral and extraoral describe whether the imaging technique requires something (like a photographic plate) be placed inside the mouth or if the image can be captured from outside the mouth.

The difference between analog and digital imaging is essentially the same as the difference between traditional film-based photography and digital photography. As you’d expect, digital imaging has become the standard in modern dental practice for many reasons.

The difference between ionizing and non-ionizing technologies has to do with the type of radiation used to accomplish the imaging purpose. “Non-ionizing radiation does not carry enough energy to break molecular bonds and ionize atoms. Example of non-ionizing are ELF and RF radiation. Ionizing radiation… carries enough energy to break bonds between molecules and ionize atoms. Examples of Ionizing radiation are the gamma rays emitted by radioactive materials, cosmic rays, and X-rays.” So, logically, non-ionizing radiation is safer for use by humans, and preferable if it will accomplish the needed purpose.

While migrating from analog to digital imaging includes a number of benefits (less expensive, faster, more versatile, no need for processing facilities) the most important advancement digital imaging made possible was a dramatic 80-percent reduction in how much radiation exposure was necessary to create usable images.

Then, of course, 2D and 3D imaging are simple to tell apart. 3D imaging technologies only became possible as computer-controlled digital imaging evolved to the point where numerous location points could be calculated and translated into an accurate 3D model of the image captured.

The most recent and exciting advances in dental imaging have come in the 3D, non-ionizing, digital forms, the safest, most useful, and most accurate options available. Examples of the most impressive technologies currently used by dental professionals include:

  • Computed Tomography
  • Tuned Aperture Computed Tomography (TACT)
  • Cone Beam Computed Tomography (CBCT)
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Ultrasound

Don’t worry if your dentist recommends a simple X-ray, though, it’s still a highly useful and beneficial option in many circumstances. The bottom line is simple: with a host of imaging services available, you can trust your dentist to identify any oral health issue you’re facing and to recommend the best possible treatment options. Dr. Shah’s study concludes:

“Recent advances in imaging technologies have revolutionized dental diagnostics and treatment planning. Correct use of appropriate imaging technology and their correct interpretation... and cost-effectiveness, newer radiographic techniques can help to detect pathologies in very early stages, which ultimately help to reduce morbidity and mortality and improve the quality of life of the patients.”

Now, if you’re concerned about the cost of diagnostic imaging, joining a dental discount plan could be a huge step in the right direction to save on dental care. Click below to learn more.

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