While you may most associate professional dental cleanings with that “squeaky” clean feeling you have afterward, there is a much higher goal. What is also referred to as “non-surgical periodontal therapy,” these cleanings seek to remove bacterial plaque and tartar (hard deposits) not only from the visible portions of the tooth but also the root surfaces (scaling), so as to reduce the risk and occurrence of periodontal gum disease.
For generations, this was primarily achieved by dental hygienists using hand-held instruments specially designed to manually remove plaque from tooth surfaces. Since the 1950s, though, a new technology known as ultrasonic or power scaling has become more prevalent in use. Initially only used in the outer most portions of the gum tissue (the supra-gingival area) power scaling is increasingly employed to clean the sub-gingival area, much closer to the tooth roots. As this technology has developed, it’s been shown to be just as effective, if not superior in some cases, to manual scaling for removing plaque and tartar.
Ultrasonic or power scalers work by emitting high vibration energy that crushes and removes plaque and calculus (tartar). The resulting shockwaves also tend to disrupt bacterial cell function. The hygienist uses water to flush away the dislodged calculus. They have a number of advantages over manual scaling: they’re quite effective on deep gum pockets, especially when specially designed tips are used; they require less time than manual scaling; and when used correctly power scalers are gentler to tooth structures.
However, they do have a few drawbacks. Because they produce an aerosol effect, power scalers can project contaminants from the patient’s mouth into the atmosphere, requiring special protective equipment for the hygienist. They’re not recommended for patients with hypersensitive teeth, especially regarding temperature change, or for teeth with areas of de-mineralization (the loss of mineral content in the enamel). Care should be taken when they’re used with implants or porcelain or composite crowns — specially designed tips are necessary to avoid scratching the restoration. They may also have an effect on cardiac pacemakers.
In the end, the best approach is a combination of both power and manual scaling techniques. Depending on your individual needs, ultrasonic scaling can do an effective job in removing plaque and tartar and help you avoid gum disease.
If you would like more information on ultrasonic cleaning techniques, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Dental Cleanings Using Ultrasonic Scalers.”