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Dental Visits That Keep Kids Smiling

When it comes to visits to the dentist, kids today have it much easier than we did. "Better technology allows me to do procedures faster and more efficiently," says Robert Mossack, a pediatric dentist in Plainview, NY. What's new in dental offices around the country:


Safer X Rays

Compared with traditional X-ray equipment, digital radiography machines—now available in less than 10 percent of dental offices—use up to 90 percent less radiation. Images are viewed in much less time than normal X rays on a monitor and can be adjusted for brightness or contrast, enhancing a dentist's ability to spot trouble.


Friendlier Anesthesia

Pain relief for procedures such as tooth pulling and cavity removal can now be administered by a computer. Instead of the needle pressure being controlled by hand, it's done electronically. Offered by about 10 percent of dentists, the method regulates the rate at which the drug is injected into the gum, allowing the tissue to absorb the drug more slowly. This is a plus since shots by hand typically cause tissue to expand rapidly and painfully, says Linda Niessen, a professor at Baylor College of Dentistry, in Dallas.


Near-Painless Drilling

To rid teeth of decay, some dentists are using air-abrasion technology. Less painful than drilling, it involves blasting cavities with tiny aluminum oxide particles. An extra perk: On small, surface cavities, Novocaine may not even be necessary.

Advances in laser technology also look promising. The erbium laser—already used on adults—was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for kids. By focusing the laser beam directly on a cavity, a dentist can painlessly vaporize the decay without hurting the surrounding tissue.


Better Fillings

Plastic fillings have been around for about 30 years, but newer ones are longer lasting, making them more popular. The tooth-colored fillings—some contain fluoride to prevent further decay—require less drilling than metal ones, for which dentists usually have to create holes bigger than the cavity itself. Instead, only the decay is cleared out, and a liquid plastic is squirted into the area with a syringe. It sets within seconds, compared with the hour it takes silver to harden. New plastic fillings should last at least 10 years—versus 3 to 5 years for the older plastic ones, and 15 to 20 for the metal type—but with proper care, experts say, they may last even longer.