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What Happens During My Dental Cleaning?

Like most people, you probably schedule your dental cleaning appointments every six months to a year. They are an integral part of good oral hygiene and provide an opportunity to detect problems in their early phases. However, you might not have thought much about why you attend these appointments and why it is so vital that you do. Understanding what happens during your dental cleanings can help reshape their image as necessary rather than a nuisance.

Preliminary Inspection

The dental hygienist will perform a cursory examination of your mouth, using a small mirror to check around your teeth and gums for signs of gingivitis, dark spots on the teeth (potential cavities), and other concerns. The hygienist also will ask if you are experiencing any problems with your gums and teeth and might ask you to review your typical oral hygiene regimen. The preliminary inspection is important to identify obvious areas of concern and write notes in your chart for the dentist to review, enabling the dentist to compare your current physical exam with past ones.

Digital X-rays

Digital X-rays are another important initial step of your cleaning appointment. X-rays are images that a beam of radiation creates when it passes through the body and hits a sensor on the other side. The images cast on digital film allow the dentist to see the condition of your teeth. They can detect tooth decay, bone loss, root damage, infections, cysts or tumors, and other issues. Because early intervention is key to the most successful outcomes with any condition, X-rays are an essential component of preventative dental care.

Removal of Plaque and Tartar

Plaque is the soft, sticky film that builds on the teeth after bacteria mix with saliva and food. If plaque stays on your teeth too long, it will harden into tartar. This substance is rough and porous and can cause receding gums and periodontal disease. During your cleaning, the hygienist will methodically remove accumulated plaque and tartar with an instrument called a scaler, a hand-held device with a metallic end shaped like a hook or curved blade. The process can take a few to several minutes, depending on how much plaque and tartar have built on your teeth.

Teeth Polishing

After removing plaque and tartar, your hygienist will erase any remaining stains using a power toothbrush and an abrasive toothpaste that thoroughly cleans the teeth. Limited to once or twice a year, this process is safe and effective at providing a deeper clean than you can get at home (but don’t try this at home because you will destroy your enamel). The toothpaste typically smells and tastes like regular toothpaste—though you can sometimes choose between flavors—but will feel gritty. This process will also polish the teeth, leaving them smooth and shiny. However, let the hygienist know if you typically have areas of tooth sensitivity so that he can apply less pressure to those teeth to avoid causing you discomfort.

Professional Flossing

If you are like most people, you probably floss before your cleaning appointment to make the best impression. And yet, you still can be surprised at what the hygienist can pull from between your teeth. This is because you might not be using the correct flossing technique to reach the smaller particles deeper into your gum line. Your dental hygienist can get deep between your teeth and locate any potential trouble spots where you might bleed at the gums. She also will review your flossing habits and give you suggestions on areas of concern that you can pay more attention to in the future. A professional flossing also removes any leftover plaque or toothpaste from earlier in the cleaning process.

Fluoride Treatment

After the cleaning is complete, the hygienist will ask you to rinse your mouth before providing a fluoride treatment. This treatment strengthens the enamel and protects teeth against damage from plaque. A gel or paste containing fluoride is placed into a mouthpiece and left on the teeth for about one minute. The hygienist also might paint a fluoride varnish onto the teeth with a small brush to provide extra protection. How long you will need to wait to eat or drink after the fluoride treatment depends on the methods used to apply it.

Final Inspection

After the cleaning and fluoride treatments are complete, your visit will conclude with a final checkup from the dentist. She will evaluate your X-rays to determine whether cavities are present or other elements are abnormal. She also will perform an oral examination similar to the one you received initially, ensuring that her findings align with those of the hygienist. In addition, the dentist will check your bite for malocclusions, evaluate any dental restorations (bridges, fillings, etc.) and check for early signs of oral cancer.

Cleanings With Braces

Your braces make your teeth more prone to plaque and tartar accumulation, so cleanings are more important than ever for patients in orthodontic treatment. When you are wearing braces, a professional cleaning is the only method that removes nearly all harmful buildup from your mouth. Even if you are wearing clear aligners, dental cleanings are still necessary. The mouthpiece helps to create a warm, moist environment where bacteria can grow. While you are wearing braces, many orthodontists recommend that a hygienist cleans your teeth between two and four times per year, even if your mouth is in great shape. This is because your risk factor for developing cavities and other dental problems increases while you wear braces.

Is It Too Late?

Even if it has been years since your last cleaning, it is never too late to take charge of your dental health. After a long lapse in dental care, many patients are nervous about returning to the chair. However, the sooner you get back to your regular appointments, the more damage you can prevent. Additionally, many common oral health issues such as periodontal disease can be treated before progressing to advanced stages. You are not alone if you have exercised less than stellar oral care habits. Studies have found that only 30 percent of Americans report flossing daily, while 37 percent say they floss occasionally and 32 percent never floss. The sooner you begin proper dental hygiene habits, the better the long-term prognosis for your dental health will be, and that should start with a professional cleaning.

Dental Anxiety

One of the main reasons people avoid their regular cleaning appointments is because they experience anxiety surrounding dental visits. This is a relatively common phenomenon—so much so that some dentists specialize in sedation using nitrous oxide or IV sedatives. If you feel that you would benefit from one of these options, you can look for sedation dentists in your area. The only downside is that insurance does not cover most sedation procedures. If you are looking for a way to cool your nerves on your own, understanding the process of your cleaning appointment hopefully is a good start. You also should ask your dentist and hygienist to explain each part of the process as they progress through it. Also, don’t be afraid to signal to your treatment provider that you need a break if you feel overwhelmed or anxious. Typically the dental professional will ask you to signal, such as raising your hand, so he knows when to stop. If the noises and sounds make you uncomfortable, bring earbuds or headphones and listen to music or a podcast you enjoy.

Contact us today to schedule a free consultation with one of our board-certified orthodontists.

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