How Going to the Dentist Has Changed Since You Were a Kid

If you’ve got bad memories of being in that big, scary chair, you might want to take a look at how much the experience has improved since then.


A couple weeks ago, I visited my dentist for a routine cleaning, and he recommended I replace my original silver-colored amalgam fillings with more contemporary tooth-colored ones. I admit, I was almost persuaded (but eventually decided that spending a few hundred bucks so people would stop noticing my fillings when I yawn was a waste of money). Either way, the proposition — combined with the fact that my initial fillings were made to feel antiquated — left me wondering what else has changed about the experience of going to the dentist that I might not even have noticed.

Dr. Matt Messina, of the American Dental Association, says that, considering how common fillings (and cavities) are, having the option to choose camouflaged versions — like the ones my dentist suggested — is certainly one of the more notable improvements. “Dental amalgam is still a safe and effective material,” Messina says. “But in large measure, for cosmetic reasons and due to the improvement of composite resin dental technology, we’re seeing a lot more tooth-colored (composite) fillings being done in today’s world.”

Another huge invention that impacts patients is CAD/CAM technology, a software that helps dentists construct dental restorations, like crowns, veneers and bridges. Rather than taking a traditional impression, which involved biting down on an impression tray that was filled with a thick liquid, dentists can use CAD/CAM technology to scan your teeth and create a 3D model. Not only is this method more precise, Messina says, since these restorative options no longer need to be outsourced to a lab, the whole process can be completed in one office visit — and less time at the dentist means more time doing things that don’t give you nightmares.

Speaking of dental restorations, implants — artificial teeth that are screwed into your jawbone, where they eventually bond with the natural bone, similar to how real teeth would — are another modern innovation that can benefit patients with unsalvageable teeth. “When I was training in dental school a little more than 30 years ago, implants were experimental and considered unusual,” says Messina. “Now the five-year success rate on implants is well above 97 percent, so it’s a routine part of dental care, and that’s a tremendous technological advantage.”

Much like with CAD/CAM technology, the inception of digital X-rays has shortened the time your average patient spends sitting in the dental chair, too. “The radiographs are taken into the computer, and as a result, they can easily be forwarded to a specialist or saved,” Messina explains. “That’s a lot easier for patients, and it reduces the amount of radiation — dental X-rays have always been very low radiation, but if we take almost nothing to even less than almost nothing, that’s always good.”

From Messina’s perspective, though, the most impactful change within dentistry has come as a result of people’s improved oral hygiene. “Two generations ago, most people lived into their sixties and passed away with dentures,” he explains. “So instead of our grandparents — their teeth were in a glass on their bedside every night — now people are living into their nineties, and they’re keeping all, or certainly most, of their own natural teeth per lifetime. That’s a pretty amazing change within two generations, so people’s expectations of their teeth, and the lifetime and function of their teeth, has certainly gone up.”

“People appreciate their teeth and are ready to expect to keep them,” Messina continues. “So they invest in repairing them and taking care of them, rather than simply deciding, ‘Well, I’ll just go ahead and take them out.’ With that in mind, people are seeking out better dental treatments, and parents are insisting that their kids see the dentist.”

And when they do go see the dentist, Messina says the tools used to clean their teeth are constantly improving. “I don’t think they look different from the patient’s perspective, but we’re moving ahead in a lot of places as far as electric dental handpieces,” he explains. “There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes, laboratory wise, which is good. We’re better every day than we were before.”

All of which is to say, dentists are more equipped now than ever. “If you had to have a dental problem, now is the best time in the world to have it, because there’s almost nothing I can’t fix,” Messina says. In which case, hey, while we’re on the phone, can I please ask you about this sore tooth?

Sad to say, though, one other notable thing that has changed about the dentist — at least for millennials — is that nobody can afford to go anymore. Since millennials have been forced into freelancing more than any other generation, hordes are ineligible for employer-sponsored health insurance. Even if your work does provide health insurance, more than 69 percent of plans fail to cover dental, according to a 2015 report from the American Dental Association.

So while being at the dentist has improved in many ways, actually getting there remains a struggle for many. Which is all the more reason to brush and floss regularly, at least until society figures out this whole healthcare thing.