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Digital Dental Impressions

Experts generally agree that good oral health is the key to good overall health. Accordingly, dentists use several techniques to evaluate and treat their patients. One way they do so is by taking digital dental impressions.

In this article, we’ll discuss what a digital dental impression is, why your dentist may take one, and what to expect.

What is a digital dental impression?

A digital dental impression is a modern alternative to a traditional or “physical” dental impression.

The old-school dental impressions, which are still taken in some circumstances, are made using goopy impression material. Dentists or dental assistants pour this mixture into a fitted tray, which is then inserted into the patient’s mouth. Once the material sets, it is removed and inspected. If the outcome is acceptable, the impression is poured to create a conventional model of the patient’s mouth or scanned to make a 3D model.

Unlike traditional impressions, digital impressions do not require the use of goopy impression material. To make a digital impression, dentists or dental assistants use digital impression technology, including a special wand. This wand, or intraoral scanner, is used to capture digital images of the patient’s teeth. The process, exclusive of preparation, generally takes 45 to 90 seconds.

Why would I need a digital dental impression?

Your dentist will take a digital dental impression if you need:

  • An evaluation prior to specific treatment
  • Dentures
  • Dental implants (dental restorations)
  • Crown and bridge
  • An oral appliance for the treatment of sleep apnea
  • Mandibular repositioning advice for the treatment of snoring and/or sleep apnea
  • An occlusal guard (if you grind your teeth)
  • A mouth guard (if you play sports)
  • Bleaching trays (for teeth whitening)
  • Orthodontics (if you need braces or aligners to straighten your teeth)

What to expect if you need a dental impression

Thanks to technological advances, there are various digital impression systems. Depending on which one your dentist uses, he or she may numb the area of concern. If this is the case, he or she will wait until any blood or saliva clears, and then dust the teeth with a special powder to facilitate scanning. This is not always necessary; dentists using different digital scanning systems may be able to capture images without using the powder.

As we have already noted, the dentist or dental assistant will take digital photographs or digital video by moving a small wand-like device over the surface area of the tooth or teeth. Dentists who use certain digital technology can then see the images as they are taken by using a “chairside monitor.” Dentists using another type of digital impression technology can see live images on a touch-screen monitor as they are captured on three-dimensional, real-time video.

The benefits of digital impressions

The ability to do a digital scan instead of a traditional impression has numerous benefits for dentists and patients. Let’s begin with the benefits for patients. First, as we have already noted, having a digital dental impression (exclusive of preparation) is quick. Secondly, there is no need to bite into a tray full of traditional dental impression material. This is especially important for patients with severe gag reflexes, or who simply can’t tolerate the taste. Finally, a digital dental impression can be done in one office visit.

One benefit of the new technology for dentists is that the optical scanning devices capture not only the “tooth preparations” in question but the adjacent teeth in the arch or quadrant, as well as the opposing teeth and the way the teeth meet. Unlike traditional dental impressions, digital impressions even capture the minute area between the tooth and the gum tissue surrounding the tooth. This is critical for proper fitting if you need a veneer or bridge.

Another for dentists is that they can zoom in on and enlarge images as they see the results of the scan. This allows them to make any necessary corrections on screen prior to transmitting the digital impression to the dental lab. Furthermore, some digital impression systems allow the dentist to layer new scans onto the first virtual model to make it even more accurate. This is because any ensuing scan, taken to capture a corrected or deleted image simply improves the previous virtual model without adding anything that detracts from it. In other words, nothing is added to the new model other than the newly captured data.

In contrast, dentists taking traditional impressions dentists rely on visual assessments done with magnifying devices, to determine whether or not the impressions should be sent to the dental laboratory. Because the impression is captured in the negative using traditional methods, it is harder to pinpoint errors. If the dentist does find a mistake, he or she will have to start all over, which typically means another office visit for the patient.

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