A Chance to Kill the Drill: Could New Fillings Make the Dental Drill a Relic?

A ground breaking new technology promises to eradicate the need for dental drilling. But can EAER remineralization really create ‘all natural’ dental fillings?


new technology no drill fillings

Image from Hadeel Omer on Flickr.

There is no denying the influence of a true dental phobia. This is a fear so intense that it prevents people from seeking treatment, even if they are suffering from severe pain and soreness. According to a recent study, as much as 75% of the American population has intentionally put off a dental appointment or procedure because of fear of the drill or needle.

So, it is clear to see that is a real problem, for patients and for dentists. If huge numbers of people are suffering in silence and not getting the care that they need, there could be all kinds of consequences. We now know, for example, that oral health is a very good indicator of overall physical health. In other words, if your teeth are in a terrible state, your body is likely to follow suit.

The question is then, what can be done about it? How can people who have spent their lives afraid to visit the dentist be convinced that there is nothing to fear? Well, it is possible. It just takes patience, skill, sensitivity, and a good deal of open and honest information from the dental industry. It also helps that dental developments and innovations are moving forward at such a rapid pace right now.

In the last few years, ground breaking studies on stem cells have allowed scientists to grow new teeth entirely from scratch. We now have laser technologies that can vaporise the decay around a tooth, without the need for extensive drilling. We can 3D print bridgework and crowns, so that they perfectly match the mouths of patients. It is a brave new world out there for dentistry and the time has come for patients to embrace it.

The Development of EAER Technologies

The latest innovation set to change the way that dentists repair our teeth is Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralization (or EAER, for short). Don’t panic, it is simpler than it sounds. According to scientists, EAER techniques are so promising, because they have the potential to make the dental drill completely redundant for all but the most intricate of fillings and root work.

This is music to the ears for dental patients, because if there is one thing that strikes fear into the heart of people during procedures, it is the dreaded drill. Whether it is the noise, the grinding metal head, or just the word ‘drill’ that causes you to sweat, you can probably identify with this particular anxiety. For decades now, dentists have been trying to reassure their patients that the drill is nothing to fear.

It has been largely unsuccessful and perhaps this is just because of how unnatural the combination of mouths and drills will always feel. No matter how you dress it up, nobody looks forward to a drill to the gnashers. So, the suggestion that EAER technologies could actually phase it out is being taken very seriously by researchers.

While any commercially viable developments are bound to take a long time to reach a position where they are suitable for the market, the signs are promising. According to the inventors of EAER, it could be ready to hit dental surgeries within three years. The creators are keen to get the technology on the market as fast as possible and it is currently being endorsed by London mayor, Boris Johnson.

Getting to Grips with the Basics of EAER

So, the big question is, what does EAER do? How could it be used to replace the need for drilling? Well, to grasp the basics, it is important to understand a little about why dental cavities form. The typical cavity is the result of plaque (from sugary foods) sticking to the tooth enamel and eating it away. While human teeth do have certain self-generating properties, this process actually happens too slowly to combat tooth decay.

Ordinarily, the solution for a cavity is a filling. This involves removing the most badly damaged areas of the tooth and replacing it with an amalgam or composite resin material. The only problem is that a drill needs to be used to remove the decayed sections and the majority of patients panic at the mere thought. What the clever scientists in London have done is find a way to speed up the natural remineralization of the enamel.

This might sound too good to be true, but with EAER technology, tiny minerals are pushed deep into the tooth using very small (and completely painless) electric currents. These currents then accelerate its inherent regeneration capabilities. The end result is quite remarkable. Without introducing any kind of foreign element or material into the mouth, the cavity starts to shrink and close.

The creators claim that the entire process takes no longer than a standard filling. They also claim that, if it were to hit the market, it would cost about the same too. Plus, the benefits for healing and dental health are vast. Whereas dental drilling and filling requires a portion of the tooth to be completely removed, thus damaging its overall strength, EAER filling can do the same job without having to take anything away.

The Potential Effects of EAER on the Dental Industry

As conventional fillings have to be replaced every 7-12 years, the traditional way of doing things is not very efficient, convenient, or economical for dentists and their patients. Up until now, it was the only method that we had. If EAER technology can replace the need for drilling and updating amalgam fillings, the consequences for the dental industry could be huge. Imagine how much easier a trip the dentist could be if you knew that one filling was all that you needed – and that it could actually help your tooth get stronger.

But wait, there is even more. As EAER remineralization encourages the tooth to regenerate and repair itself naturally this method of filling also whitens enamel. The organic material that grows back in place of the cavity is, essentially, brand new tooth enamel, so it appears looking fresh and unsoiled. With an estimated (no really) 100% of all adults now requiring treatment for a cavity at some point in their lives, there is no better time for a dental revolution.

The creators of EAER are well aware of just how influential the new treatment method could be and not just for dental patients in first world countries. In developing nations, it can be difficult to deliver high quality dental care because the resources are expensive or tricky to access. If you do not need any artificial materials to apply to the organic structures, you immediately cut costs and make it easier to treat cavities, even without sophisticated tools.

EAER could be the ideal cavity treatment for children growing up in third world countries, as it significantly decreases the need for repeat appointments. As the new tooth surface ages, it gets stronger. And to return to the topic of dental phobias, EAER could do wonders for persuading drill fearing patients to stop avoiding essential care. As far as we know, there are no downsides or negative side effects to having this kind of treatment to repair a cavity.

Waiting for EAER Treatments to Hit Surgeries

As aforementioned, the London based developers hope to get EAER into UK dental surgeries within the next three years. Unfortunately, due to legal and regulatory conflicts, this is likely to take a lot longer when it comes to the US market. The FDA places a lot more restrictions and requirements on new medical developments, so it could be while before this ground breaking new treatment is seen in the States.

The good news is that the creators are happily liaising with the FDA to try and speed things up, so there is certainly a good chance that the technology will make it to the USA eventually. It is interesting to imagine what its influence on the current debate surrounding mercury fillings might be. As an innovation that promises to entirely negate the need for fillings of all kinds, it would definitely have high profile supporters, but it may also face political obstacles.

At the moment, the US government is under fire for allowing the Department of Health and Human Services to reject an FDA safety warning regarding mercury amalgam fillings. A number of years ago, the FDA (which was formerly a champion of mercury fillings) filed a report strongly advising the introduction of tighter controls on mercury use. It recommended that mercury fillings be avoided by dentists, wherever possible, but especially in infants and pregnant and nursing mothers.

The document was kept under wraps until very recently, when it was publically revealed that the government had hastily rejected the proposal. Over the last twenty years, several countries have completely banned the use of mercury in dental fillings, due to concerns that it can cause a litany of serious health problems. The United States government is clearly unwilling to follow suit and has now released a statement assuring citizens with amalgam fillings that they have nothing to fear.

The Fight to Remove Mercury from Dental Fillings

Today, only around 50% of US dentists still offer mercury amalgam fillings. The rest have ceased using the material, either because they fear the consequences for health or because patients are turning away from it in their droves. The problem is that, of the 50% of dentists still using mercury fillings, a huge proportion are servicing prisons, care homes, low income neighbourhoods, veterans, and the unemployed.

So, in many ways, the fight against mercury fillings has become a social issue. The government may claim that the material is safe for use in dental procedures, but the only people still being treated with it are those too poor to afford an alternative option. At current rates, the cost difference between a cheap mercury amalgam filling and the next best (premium) alternative is around $100.

The typical amalgam filling consists of 50% mercury and 50% ‘other’ metal materials. These fillings have been historically referred to as ‘silver fillings,’ because they are shiny and metallic. Unlike premium resin fillings, mercury cannot be coloured to match the natural tone of teeth. While the majority of the mercury is secured inside the filling structure, small amounts cannot be prevented from ‘leaking’ out of the tooth.

This leaked mercury is emitted into the mouth and naturally inhaled. According to campaigners and critics, this can lead to a wealth of serious health problems. Everything from memory loss, to autoimmune disease, vision problems, kidney failure, depression, autism, and more. There is actually a lot of credible evidence around to support these claims and there has been for many decades. Yet, still the US government refuses to fully investigate the issue.

Mercury and Remineralization Technologies

If a technology, like EAER, could be used to fill dental cavities without the need for artificial materials, the argument over whether mercury should or shouldn’t be used in fillings would become redundant. It is rare for a dental breakthrough to promise cost benefits for dentists immediately after implementation, but if no outside resources are needed, this is exactly what EAER could achieve.

It remains to be seen how fast the technology can hit the market and whether or not the ambitious claims made by its inventors hold up, but one thing is for sure – it will be exciting finding out. This is exactly the kind of innovation that makes the dental industry such a pioneering place to be.

As patients, we all take our dental treatments for granted. They rarely inspire wonder or awe. But perhaps things would be different if the media took more of an interest in the amazing developments and inventions that are promising to revolutionise the way that we care for our teeth. So, the next time that you head off to the dentist for a filling, just think about how different things could be in thirty years from now.



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