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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.

Family.

One day in the not-too-distant future, your braces will come off. In a few moments, you'll be free of bands and brackets, able to eat what you want and run your tongue over smooth, clean teeth. But, even on this happy occasion, please remember that you're not quite done with orthodontic treatment yet: The next phase, called retention, is just beginning.

Retention is a critical follow-through stage that typically involves wearing an orthodontic appliance called a retainer. Several different kinds of retainers are available, all of which are custom-made.

But if your teeth are straight now, why do you need a retainer at all? Simply put, it's because if you don't wear one, your teeth will start moving right back to where they were!

Teeth aren't set rigidly in the jawbone — instead, they're held in place by a network of fibers called the periodontal ligaments. After they have being moved, it takes several months for the periodontal ligament to adjust to the new position. So if you want to keep that new smile — and not waste all the time, effort, and money it took to get it — it's essential to wear your retainer as directed.

Being fitted for a retainer usually happens on the same day your braces are removed. After your teeth are thoroughly cleaned, another set of X-rays and/or bite impressions may be taken to check how well your braces worked and to see how much your wisdom teeth have developed. Then, a retainer will be prepared for you.

Three Types of Retainers

Types of orthodontic retainers.

There are three basic types of retainers available today; each works best in particular situations. The most common is the so-called “Hawley” retainer — a thin, tongue-shaped piece of acrylic molded to fit your mouth, with a wire that holds your teeth in position. The Hawley retainer is simple, durable and easily removed. It's even possible to personalize it by choosing different colors and designs for the plastic arch.

Another popular style of retainer is the clear aligner-type, which looks similar to the Invisalign® tray system. These retainers are custom-made of thin, transparent plastic designed to fit precisely over your teeth. Their main advantage is that they're invisible, with no wire to show. These retainers are also easy to remove, but they may be somewhat less durable than the Hawleys. They aren't recommended for patients with certain conditions, like teeth grinding.

Finally, fixed retainers may be an option for some people, especially on the lower front teeth. As their name implies, they aren't removable by the wearer — but they aren't visible either. Like lingual braces, this system uses a wire which is bonded to the tongue side of the teeth. It may remain in place for months, or longer. This type of retainer is sometimes recommended when there's a high risk that teeth could revert to their former position.

A Period of Adjustment

After a short time, most people adjust quite well to wearing a retainer. Some may find that they produce more saliva than usual for a day or so after first wearing any type of retainer — a normal reaction to a foreign object in the mouth. You may also find it a little harder to talk normally at first, but that problem will soon disappear. Of course, removable retainers should always be taken out when you eat or brush your teeth — a big change from braces!

At first, you will probably be told to wear your removable retainer all day, every day. This period of 24/7 retainer use generally lasts from several months to a year. Later, it may be OK to wear it only at night. Finally, you'll probably need to put it on just a few nights a week.

Maintaining — and Retaining — Your Retainer

To stay fresh and germ-free, all retainers need proper cleaning. A Hawley-type retainer can be brushed gently with a regular toothbrush — but a brush may scratch the clear aligner types. Denture cleaners, in powder or tablet form, as well as special retainer cleaners, can be used to clean most removable retainers. Fixed retainers are cleaned by brushing and flossing; a floss threader or interproximal brush can also be a helpful cleaning tool when needed.

Finally, remember to always carry — and use — a retainer case. You'd be surprised how many retainers end up folded in a napkin and accidentally discarded! Also, don't expose your retainer to excess heat by washing it in very hot water or leaving it on a heater: That can cause the retainer to warp and make it unusable. With proper care and conscientious use, a retainer can help you transition from braces to a permanent, healthy smile.

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The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers Decades ago, orthodontists used to think that once teeth were moved into the “right” positions, they would stay there forever. Research over the past thirty years has shown that this is not true — there is no “right” position that can assure a permanent, unchanging result. The only way to be sure the alignment of your teeth and your bite remains stable after orthodontic treatment is to wear retainers as needed and as directed by your orthodontist or dentist... Read Article

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Why Orthodontic Retainers? It is common to wear retainers following orthodontic treatment or what people commonly refer to as braces, for good reason. Teeth must be “retained” or stabilized in their new position long enough for the gum tissue, bone and ligament to reform and mature around them, which can take several months. The teeth will tend to relapse into their old position quite rapidly if the retainers are not worn... Read Article