Dentists today are using lasers, cameras and digital computer software to change the experience people have in their chairs.
Technology "is very important to dentists," says Dr. Richard Prather III of the Hagerstown practice Dental Design Studio Inc. "We all strive to keep abreast of new technologies."
But, he says, dentists also are cautious to embrace technologies just because it's the latest thing. "We like to see things be proven a little bit with time ... especially since it is such a huge investment."
Seven years ago, Prather was one of the first general practice dentists in the country to incorporate a dental laser into his practice, he says. Even at that time, dental lasers had been around for several years.
Dentists need to decide which technologies are worth the investment, explain Prather and Barney. For example, the Waterlase, a laser drill that he uses now for the majority of his drill work, costs $70,000. But, studies show that the investment is worth it to his patients. "It does better restorations," he says. "It's a better technique than the drill. Every time I use it within its proper use, the technique is more kind to the tooth."
Barney has a similar goal in mind as he has received advanced training in neuromuscular and aesthetic dentistry from the Las Vegas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies.
Since he's been offering neuromuscular dentistry techniques for the past two years, he's been able to help patients beyond cavity-fillings and tooth cleanings.
Neuromuscular dentistry considers how a person's jaw muscles, joints and teeth are aligned.
Because teeth are harder than muscles, the human jaw will adjust itself based on the alignment of teeth. If teeth are too short, for example, the jaw is forced to close in an unnatural way. Sometimes, misalignment of the jaw can lead to neck or face pain and chronic headaches.
That's where a neuromuscular dentist can help, Barney says. Instead of focusing on only the teeth, bones and gums, a neuromuscular dentist looks at the whole patient to make sure the oral cavity and all its parts are working properly.
"The body works as one," he says. "That's what neuromuscular dentists embrace."
A visit to Barney's office can entail muscle readings and scans to determine if a patient's jaw is optimally aligned.
"The body is like building blocks, and, if one of those blocks get out of whack, the body compensates in other ways," Barney says.
Jim Leatherman of Martinsburg, W.Va., is hoping Barney can help him with neuromuscular dentistry.
Leatherman was in a car accident in 1991 and has experienced severe chronic pain since then. He has continuous pain from the back of his neck, above his right ear and above his right eye and has been told he has nerve damage.
Barney is taking muscular scans of Leatherman to find out if his pain can be alleviated by repositioning his jaw. It's too early to know if Leatherman can be helped, but he's hoping to find some relief.
"It would be fantastic," he says. "What I'm trying to do is stay away from as much pain medication as I can."
Barney says neuromuscular dentistry can help about 90 percent of the patients who are hoping to relieve pain.
Neuromuscular dentistry is just part of what Barney does as a general practice dentist. The American Dental Association has not designated neuromuscular dentistry as a specialization like pediatric or orthodontic specializations. For perspective, though, cosmetic dentistry also has not been recognized as a specialty.
Cutting with water
Prather and Barney also have found improved results for his patients through the use of dental lasers.
He uses the Waterlase for almost all of his filling work, root canals, gum surgeries and nonsurgical gum treatments. Depending on the procedure, the Waterlase laser is used in place of drills or scalpels.
The laser - a nonvisible light beam - never touches the tooth, Prather explains. Instead the laser wand combines a fine spray of with the laser light.
"The light actually explodes the water drops to create the drilling effect," he explains.
The laser procedure is said to be painless enough that most patients do not need any form of anesthesia. The laser works by energizing water to such a level of excitement that it can remove tooth decay and enamel. A patient will feel water in their mouth during the procedure, but the only water that is actively drilling is found two millimeters - about 1/8 inch - from the end of the laser wand.