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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.

Orthodontic emergencies.At first, having orthodontic treatment may take a little getting used to. It isn't uncommon to experience a bit of soreness when appliances are first put on, or some minor aches as teeth begin moving into new positions. Yet it's comforting to know that genuine orthodontic emergencies are rare.

If you think you may have an emergency, however, the first step is to determine the severity of the problem: Is it an urgent situation that requires immediate attention, or a minor problem that you can take care of yourself, temporarily, until you can come in to the office?

A Major Emergency

There are only a few true orthodontic (or dental) emergencies. They include:

  • Trauma or injury to the teeth, face or mouth
  • Infection or swelling of the gums, mouth or face
  • Severe, unmanageable discomfort or pain in these areas

In any of these situations, you should seek help as soon as possible — go to an emergency room, if that's your best option. Generally, however, the place to start is at the dental office. If, for example, you have a fractured tooth, that immediate problem requires diagnosis and treatment. Afterwards your orthodontic treatment plan can be adjusted as needed. Likewise, severe pain or swelling could be a sign of infection or disease, which also needs immediate treatment.

Some Minor Troubles

Fortunately, the vast majority of orthodontic problems are minor compared to these situations — but they may still cause discomfort or irritation. In general, it's best to try and soothe the immediate cause of the discomfort, and then call for an appointment. Here are a few of the more common orthodontic problems, along with some tips on what you can do to relieve them at home:

Loose or broken brackets, bands or wires
This problem is often caused by eating hard or sticky candy or food, or playing with the braces. If the band or bracket is still attached to the wire, leave it as is — but don't connect any elastics to it! You can cover it with orthodontic wax if it's irritating the inside of your mouth. If it has come off, save it. In either case, call our office to let us know what happened, and we will recommend the next step.

Misplaced or poking archwire, bracket or tie
As the teeth start to move, the wire that connects them (archwire) may begin poking near the back of the mouth or irritating the cheeks. You can try moving the wire into a better position with a pencil eraser or a Q-Tip. If the wire won't move, you may be able to cut the end off with a nail clipper sterilized in alcohol — but before doing so, please call for guidance or instructions. Often, you can also use tweezers to gently move a misplaced wire or a tie that's causing problems.

When wires or brackets cause irritation, covering the metal parts with wax will often help ease the discomfort. As with any of these types of problems, it's best to make an appointment so it can be taken care of.

General tooth pain or loosening
It's normal for teeth to become slightly loosened during orthodontic treatment — that shows they're moving! Sometimes, this movement may be accompanied by tenderness, especially after braces are placed or adjusted. For minor soreness, you can use your regular over-the-counter pain reliever. A twice-a-day salt-water rinse may also help: Mix one teaspoon of salt in an 8-ounce glass of warm water, and rinse for 30 seconds. A warm washcloth or heating pad placed on the outside of the jaw can also offer some relief.

While actual emergencies are rare, the goal is to make orthodontic treatment as comfortable as possible.