Dental fillings have been around for thousands of years, and historians continue to find proof of their existence from earlier and earlier centuries. The most recent discovery was made in Italy of a filling believed to be around 13,000 years old. Of course, fillings have come a long way since the days of using asphalt material, beeswax and hair to repair teeth!
Taking Notes from Mussels
The dental community is always looking for innovative ways to use new technology and to enhance the tools and materials they use in day-to-day dentistry. Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara looked to mussels for inspiration when developing a new dental composite material that adheres better to the surfaces of the teeth, similar to the way mussels grasp onto all varieties of surfaces in the ocean.
The creators of the new dental composite said that the material is as hard as a typical composite, but its strength lies in the fact that it is less likely to crack. Researchers believe creating this stronger material will lead to fewer dental visits in the future, since dental fillings could become more durable and less likely to dislodge or malfunction. In addition, stronger dental fillings could increase the lifespan of the tooth and help dentists avoid extraction, which would lead to better overall oral health.
Dental Fillings Today
Today, there’s still no one specific material that is used in all dental fillings around the nation. Filling options range from gold, porcelain, silver, amalgam, composite resin and even plastics. The most commonly used materials are amalgam and resin, said Dr. Amy Norman, DDS, a leading dentist in Everett, Washington.
"Amalgam fillings are made with a mixture of materials including silver, tin, zinc copper and mercury. The use of mercury has many people concerned about the safety of the material, even though the ADA has confirmed it’s safe," she said.
For this reason, many patients at practices around the country are turning to composite resin fillings. Some are even having their amalgam fillings removed and replaced with composite fillings that they believe are more attractive and potentially safer.
"Many patients choose composite fillings because we can match them to the color and shade of their tooth for a much more natural look than the silver coloring of amalgam fillings," said Norman.
Amalgam vs. Composite Fillings
The biggest concern globally right now is the safety of amalgam fillings. Many countries, and even the European Union, are working to completely phase out the use of these fillings in practices in their respective nations. However, many people in the United States still choose these fillings due to their durability and cost. In general, amalgam fillings are less expensive than composite, and some insurance companies only pay for the cheaper option, or cover more of the cost when you choose amalgam.
Some other disadvantages to amalgam fillings include more removal of healthy tooth structure in order to place the fillings, the discoloration they can cause on nearby teeth and the cracks and fractures that are possible as the material expands and contracts under temperature extremes.
When it comes to composites, the biggest reason Norman sees patients choosing them in her practice is the aesthetic.
"They just look better," she said. "Also, health is becoming much more important to Americans all around the nation, so many don’t see the point in taking the risk when there is a better alternative material available."