Technology in modern dentistry is constantly advancing. From the front office where digital patient records are replacing paper files to the treatment room where cone beam imaging and 3D imaging are taking the place of film x-rays, new tools are changing the typical dental patient’s experience. Dental impressions are another area that is “going digital” with the introduction of intraoral scanners.
Intraoral scanners are devices that can create a 3D picture of a patient’s teeth with a lot less discomfort and mess than traditional dental impressions.. An image made with an intraoral scanner is essentially a photograph, so radiation exposure is not a concern.
“An intraoral scanner eliminates many of the time-consuming and often imprecise steps that are associated with traditional impressions. A digital impression taken by an intraoral scanner delivers a quick, accurate image of the treatment area,” said Dr. Rick Workman, Founder and Executive Chairman of Heartland Dental. “The nuisances of taking an impression with putty and filling it with messy plaster are no longer factors. What’s more, there is no need to worry about the distortions that can occur due to the inconsistent nature of traditional impression materials.”
What are Dental Impressions Used For?
No two mouths are the same. Dentists must rely on impressions of their patients’ teeth for a variety of dental procedures that need to fit a particular patient. Impressions give dentists a clear map of the teeth so they can achieve a good fit when creating dental crowns, bridges, dentures, and implants.
Impressions are also an important part of orthodontia. Technicians need them to build braces or aligner trays like Invisalign.
The introduction of digital impressions in the 1990s has given dentists a more accurate view of a patient’s dental landscape. Intraoral scanners also provide a more comfortable experience for the patient.
Traditional Dental Impressions
Another word for an impression is indentation, and that’s exactly how a traditional dental impression is made.
- A metal or plastic tray is filled with a pliable impression compound. This might be something that creates a flexible end product, such as silicone. Or it might be plaster of paris or another material that creates a rigid end result.
- Working on either the lower or upper teeth first, the tray is placed snugly over the teeth. The patient waits at least five minutes, and sometimes as many as 15 minutes, while the material solidifies with an indentation of their teeth.
- When the tray is removed, the dentist has a mold of the patient’s teeth.
- The mold is sent to a lab, often offsite, where it is filled with plaster or plastic, creating a three-dimensional model.
- Technicians will use the model to build whatever dental restoration or appliance is necessary.
While this method has been successful for a long time, it has its drawbacks. The process requires materials and time to complete. Accuracy can be compromised if a patient moves too much, or because of outside factors like air bubbles in the impression compound, or due to human error in the dentist’s office or the lab.
Getting dental impressions made can also be very uncomfortable for patients. They must sit still with their mouth wide open, while a tray of gooey, rubbery compound sticks to their teeth. It’s not surprising to have one’s gag reflex triggered during the process.
Digital Imaging for Dental Impressions
Digital impressions using intraoral scanners offer a completely different experience for both patients and dentists. Instead of the physical duplication of teeth made by traditional impressions, a digital image is created on a monitor screen.
For the patient, what used to take up to 15 minutes each for both upper and lower teeth, can be completed in just a few minutes. There are also no messy compounds or trays.
Instead, the dentist runs a small wand over the surface of the teeth and gums. As they touch every area inside the mouth, a digital image is created on-screen almost immediately. Some intraoral scanners require a powder to be applied to the teeth before the procedure, but this is much easier for most people to handle than the materials used for conventional impressions.
Here, Dr. Dave Maricondo of myontariodentist.com talks about the iTero scanner, an intraoral scanner he uses in his office:
Advantages of Intraoral Scanners
Using a digital image has distinct advantages for both the dentist and the patient.
- The entire process is quicker than traditional impressions, sometimes eliminating an entire step at the lab. Since the teeth can be examined and measured on the screen, making a plaster or plastic model sometimes isn’t even necessary.
- Dentists can see and diagnose problems immediately. And the digital files can be sent to labs right away so work on restorative or orthodontic tools can start right away.
- Digital images are more accurate, as things like air bubbles or patient movement aren’t a problem. If there is an error, a new scan can usually be taken of that one spot, and the image “patched” into the existing digital picture. The old method would require a complete re-do of the impressions. Better accuracy ultimately results in better fitting crowns, bridges, dentures, braces, and alignment trays.
- 3D images are easily manipulated on the screen. The dentist can turn, move, and zoom in on the image for a better view. Also, two different images, taken at different times can be overlayed to show the progress of a specific dental treatment.
- Digital images can be stored indefinitely and are easily sent to other dental professionals. There is no need to keep plaster models for each patient.
- The patient has a much more pleasant experience with a more comfortable, better fitting result.
“Today’s patients desire quick, easy, and accurate results now more than ever before. Traditional impressions have proven to be unpredictable in delivering precise measurements for treatment planning,” added Dr. Workman. “By implementing intraoral scanners, dentists can put themselves and their teams ahead of the curve in dental care. Patients will be thrilled with the ease and efficiency of this new technology, giving them even more incentive to move forward with treatment.”
Drawbacks of Intraoral Scanners
There are very few disadvantages to intraoral scanners. In fact, the primary drawback may be that they are not yet available for use at every dental practice. As it is still a somewhat new technology, the cost of the equipment is high. The machines are an expensive investment that not every dentist can afford.
Dentists who have the financial means appreciate the tradeoff of a quicker, easier method of getting a more accurate impression for the patient.
As with all innovations, the costs will come down as more intraoral imaging products become available. To find a dentist in your area with this state-of-the-art equipment, use our online search tool.