Health: The dental chair is a more comfortable place

Fear of the dentist's surgery is no longer justified. Technology is transforming it from torture chamber to beauty parlour.

FOR MOST of her life, Dawn Hutchings was too embarrassed about the state of her teeth to smile, laugh or even talk without holding a protective hand in front of her mouth.

After years of anxiety and worry, the 35-year-old administrator dipped into her savings, spent pounds 4,150 on a new smile, and now says that it has completely changed her life.

"For years I was miserable because my teeth were disgusting, and I thought nothing could be done. It's made me a different person, and friends and the people I work with can't believe that it's me," she says.

Treatments such as hers are possible because of the techniques that have transformed dentistry in recent years. Not so long ago, dental surgeries had about as much charm as a medieval torture chamber; only the bravest plucked up courage to seek out a dentist as a last resort, to have a painful tooth extracted or filled.

But the Marathon Man era of dentistry has now all but gone. Radical technology has transformed dentists from tooth-pullers into tooth-savers, and most visits to the surgery are no longer driven by pain, but by a simple desire to keep teeth healthy and prevent decay.

Fluoride in toothpaste and dietary changes, particularly a lower sugar intake, started the revolution in dental health care that created greater expectations, which in turn fuelled the search for new treatments and methods, from painless fillings to home whitening kits.

The noisy drill is now being replaced by air brushes and gels; teeth can be rebuilt in the mouth or whitened with lasers; Baywatch smiles can be created from a jagged line of yellow teeth.

"People are much more aware of their teeth now, and dentistry is very different to what it was; it's much more preventive," says Dr Tony Newbury, a Harley Street dentist. "When I graduated in the early Sixties we took teeth out and we had two filling materials - black for the back, white for the front. That was it. Now there is a whole heap of things we can do. When I started I would do five or more extractions a week; now I may do five in a whole year.

"The art of dentistry has changed significantly. The whole thing is to be minimally invasive, whereas in the past we were maximally invasive. We were taught to put fillings in just in case the teeth got decayed.

"We can do all sorts of things now. We can bond material to the surface of teeth, which means you don't have to be drastic when you cut into teeth, and you don't have to do the great undercuts that we had to do in the past to hold the material in place. We can change the colour of the teeth, straighten crooked teeth, fill the spaces between teeth, rebuild chips, and so on. It is the most exciting time in dentistry."

The treatment Dawn Hutchings had took three hours. Her problem was that she had dark yellow upper teeth, two twisted teeth, spaces between the teeth, a receding upper jaw and a thin lip line.

Her treatment involved having resin sculptures bonded to the teeth, and changing their colour to a natural-looking white. The teeth were lengthened and built into a better and fuller smile, and the resin has given more support to her upper lip.

More developments are on the horizon, including a compound that coats the teeth and prevents bacteria from sticking. One coat of this compound will give protection for up to four months.

There are also treatments for those who have a morbid fear of the dentist and the drill.

According to Dr Peter Webb, author of Robinson's Family Encyclopaedia of Homeopathic Remedies, there are natural potions suitable for those who faint or throw up at the sight and smell of a dental surgery. The secret for those whose symptoms are a weakening of the knees and short- term memory loss at the prospect, is, he says, a tot of yellow jasmine, taken an hour before the appointment.

Some of the Latest Advances in Dental Technology

A complete smile: The full works involves building up the front of the teeth with special resin and thickening the teeth by about half a millimetre. Teeth can also be lengthened, lined up and whitened, and gaps and chips filled in. Cost: around pounds 5,000 for the upper teeth

Air abrasion filling: A spray of an air-and-powder mix that cuts out decay. Unlike a drill, it removes little of the good tooth surrounding the decay. Ideal for those with a dental phobia, it is silent, with no odour or heat, and in most cases there is no need for an injection. Cost: pounds 65-pounds 185

Dental gel filling: Dissolves tooth decay with no drilling, injection or pain. The gel breaks down protein layers in the decayed dentine of the tooth. It also contains sodium hypochlorite, an anti-bacteria agent, to break up decay.

Cost: pounds 65-pounds 185

Braces: Brackets can be fitted to the inside of the teeth, out of sight. They can also be removed by the patient. Cost: pounds 350-pounds 3,000

Laser whitening: Teeth discolour for a variety of reasons including blood disorders, ageing, trauma and tobacco. In this therapy, a gel is painted on to the teeth, then exposed to a low-power laser. In three minutes yellow teeth can be lightened by three shades. The teeth will continue to whiten over the next 48 hours. Cost: pounds 350 to pounds 600

Home whitening kits: A custom-designed mould has a whitening solution inside. Teeth will whiten up to three shades over eight weeks. Cost: pounds 350

Resin veneer: Plaque-free teeth are coated with a veneer of composite resin, bonded directly on to the surface of the tooth to makes it thicker and whiter.

Cost: Around pounds 450 a tooth

Resin compound: For gaps and chips. It is hardened with halogen or plasma light. Cost: Around pounds 250 a gap

Perio-temp: A device to test the temperature of pockets in the tissue around the gum. A raised temperature indicates possible problems. Cost: Can be part of an initial consultation, cost pounds 40-pounds 60

Decay detector: A laser system using infrared light to detect decay before it can be seen

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