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Imagine this: An implant surgeon is performing a thorough examination of your mouth. The surgeon rotates your jaw from side to side and up and down, looking for the optimal sites in which to place dental implants — and the proper size, shape and orientation for the implants to have. He or she may test several alternatives, considering the underlying anatomical structures, and the bone density and quality that the examination reveals. Finally, a surgical plan is developed: This includes a set of precise specifications for implant position, size and depth, and a template for creating a perfectly fitting set of replacement teeth. But no invasive procedures of any type have been performed so far. In fact, you aren't even present.

Welcome to the world of computer-guided dental implant surgery. What we have described is one step in the process that allows you to receive a set of replacement teeth with the minimum amount of surgery (and time spent in the dental chair), and the maximum level of preplanning foresight. It can result in faster overall treatment time, less discomfort, and an outcome that pleases everyone. Let's look a little more closely at the entire process of computer-guided implant surgery — a procedure at the forefront of dental implant technology.

The First Phase: Making A Virtual Model

It all begins with a complete examination and modeling of your existing teeth, gum and jaw structures. In many cases, a physical impression (replica) of the jaws is made, which will aid in planning the location of the new teeth. But the modeling doesn't stop there: A high-tech, three-dimensional CT (computed tomography) scan is also performed. This allows us to examine the structures (including bone, nerve tissue and sinus cavities) which lieinside the jaw. It is often accomplished using “cone-beam” CT technology, in which the scanning device quickly captures a complete digital image of internal structures as it rotates around your head.

The next step of the process relies on powerful computers and sophisticated software to take the raw CT scan data and translate it into a 3-D model of the jaw. This virtual model can be manipulated on a computer screen — rotated, measured, even “operated” on — so that we can visualize the placement of dental implants and determine their optimum position with a high degree of accuracy. Using this technology, it's now possible for us to evaluate anatomical structures virtually — structures it once would have taken surgery to reveal — and to plan out the implant procedure accordingly.

The 3-D model we have developed is then used for two purposes: to create a precise guide for the implant surgery, and to allow the dental laboratory to pre-manufacture a set of replacement teeth that will fit precisely in the jaw. An advanced set of CAD/CAM (computer aided design/manufacture) processes is used to generate the physical objects — in this case, the surgical guide and the prosthetic teeth. Depending on your individual situation, the new teeth may be attached the same day as implant surgery, or after a healing period of 6 to 12 weeks. In either case, our precision modeling ensures that they will fit perfectly with the implants and the jaw.

Implant Surgery: Following the Plan

The implant surgery itself is typically performed under local anesthesia, and often requires no sutures (stitches). In the surgical procedure, the template we have produced (which resembles a nightguard or athletic mouthguard) is securely (but temporarily) fixed in position on the jaw. The openings in this template form precise guides for the placement of the implants — accurate in terms of position, width and depth. In fact, the implants fit so perfectly into these prepared sites that we can have new teeth placed the same day as implant surgery.

Since so many of the details have been accomplished in the planning stages, computer-guided implant surgery is typically uneventful for the patient. It can result in shorter time in the chair, less discomfort during recovery — and a highly pleasing result. It has even been called the most significant innovation in implant technology since osseointegration — the fundamental process by which a dental implant becomes fused with the bone.

Periodontal Disease.What does the phrase “oral health” mean to you? No new cavities at your dental checkup? That's certainly part of it. But it's really so much more than a lack of tooth decay. Good oral health means a mouth that's free of disease — which can range all the way from mild gingivitis (gum inflammation) to oral cancer; a bite that functions well enough for you to eat without pain and get ample nutrition; and a smile that lets you express your happiest emotions with confidence. Simply put, oral health is a crucial component of your overall health and well-being.

It's important to realize that small — and readily treatable — problems in your mouth can become more complicated, painful and expensive if neglected for too long. Some of these oral health conditions may even have ramifications throughout the whole body. Gingivitis, for example, can sometimes progress to periodontitis — a more serious form of gum disease that can loosen teeth and cause them to fall out. Missing teeth can lead to bone loss in the jaw and inadequate nutrition. And numerous studies have shown that people with severe gum disease may be at increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease. The moral of this story: Routine maintenance can pay off big.

What You Can Do to Stay Healthy

Brushing teeth.One of the most important things you can do to safeguard your oral health is to maintain a daily oral hygiene routine that effectively removes plaque from your teeth. It's the bacteria that thrive in the plaque biofilm that cause so many oral health problems. Effective oral hygiene involves brushing your teeth twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste and flossing at least once per day to remove plaque from between the teeth.

Nutrition and lifestyle choices also play an important role. You don't have any control over hereditary factors that may predispose you to gum disease — but you do have control over how much sugar you eat and when you eat it; how often you exercise; whether you smoke; and how often you visit the dentist.

How Dentistry Can Help

If you only see a dentist when problems arise, you may be missing out on some important benefits! As doctors who specialize in oral health, dentists offer a wide range of preventive services. At your regular exams, for example, you will be checked for any signs of oral cancer, tooth decay, gum disease, and other oral infections; hard-to-reach deposits from your teeth will be cleaned; and you can get answers to any questions you have on topics ranging from oral hygiene issues to the connection between oral health and systemic diseases.

So please don't wait for a serious problem to come up before you make an appointment at the dental office. Having regular checkups could save you lots of time, aggravation, and cost in the long run. It could even save your teeth! Working together, we can take proactive steps toward a healthy future.

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