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Smile Pretty: Common Dental Problems and Treatments

Stop dreading the dentist. Improved equipment and techniques make treating tooth problems fast and (almost) pain-free.
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By Karen Pearson

As I waited in the dentist's chair for my root canal, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine myself on a tropical island. But my heart continued to race. Thanks to an extreme case of dental phobia, I'd let a toothache linger for almost a year, hoping the pain would disappear. Now it was time to co-pay the piper.

This may sound extreme, but my fears aren't uncommon. Thirty to 40 million Americans steer clear of the dentist each year due to anxiety, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).

Turns out my worry was for naught. The root canal took less than an hour—and didn't hurt at all. I was so pleasantly surprised that I hugged my dentist afterward.

New technologies have made dental procedures shorter, and state-of-the-art instruments mean less discomfort. Plus, dentists are acknowledging patient stress. "We talk to people extensively now before sticking anything in their mouths," says Kimberly Harms, D.D.S., a dentist in Farmington, Minnesota, and a consumer adviser spokesperson for the ADA. "We ask what they're concerned about and answer their questions, which establishes trust."

Before you brush off your dental distress, find out why the experts say the latest fixes for common problems are bound to leave you smiling.


This throbbing sensation is usually the result of decay. When a cavity is left untreated, it deepens and exposes the tooth's inner pulp (where the nerves are), leaving it vulnerable to irritation and infection, says Jerry Gordon, D.M.D., a dentist and CEO of The Dental Comfort Zone in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. "Once it reaches the toothache stage, it's typically too late for a simple filling." Your dentist (or an endodontist, who specializes in matters concerning the inside of the tooth) will need to perform surgery: either a root canal, which replaces the tooth's damaged pulp with a rubbery material, or in severe cases, an extraction.

The good news: Rotary dental files—metal instruments that attach to a drill—make root canals easy. "The latest ones are made of a nickel-titanium alloy instead of stainless steel. They're just as strong but more flexible, so the job can be done faster, without putting as much pressure on your teeth," says Dr. Gordon. Getting a tooth pulled isn't the nightmare it used to be, either, because of improved anesthetics. Ask about your options. Many dentists now use Articaine, a shot with twice the concentration of other anesthetics, providing more intense numbness and penetrating further into the teeth, jaw and gums. It also starts working faster and wears off more quickly, meaning you can eat soon after.

Price point: A root canal costs $600 to $1,400, depending on which tooth is treated (back molars are the most expensive). See your dentist first, and if he's unable to do the procedure he may refer to you an endodontist. Many dental insurance plans cover 80% to 100% of the cost of root canals. A tooth extraction will set you back a couple of hundred, though insurers are likely to provide partial coverage.


Most experts believe emotional stress is a factor in teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) and clenching (bruxism), which for some reason affect more women than men. "It can begin with any type of worry or when someone starts a new job or experiences the death of a loved one," says Dr. Gordon. "Self-detecting the condition is difficult because most people who grind or clench do it while they sleep." Look for telltale signs, like flattened or chipped teeth, and sore facial muscles in the morning. And get treatment as grinding can lead to cavities, jaw pain, headaches and tender gums.

The good news: Mouth guards can protect your teeth and provide relief in as little as two weeks by reducing friction between your top and bottom rows of teeth. "The new dual-laminate acrylic models are harder on the outside and softer on the inside, so they're durable and more comfortable," says Dr. Gordon. Practicing relaxation techniques, like five minutes of deep breathing before bed, can also help nix the gnashing.

Price point: Mouth guards are not generally covered by insurance, so be prepared to pay $400 to $800. On the plus side, they tend to last 5 to 10 years.