How are lasers used in dentistry?

Dentists have had access to specialized, commercially available dental lasers since the 1990s.
Dentists have had access to specialized, commercially available dental lasers since the 1990s.

Lasers technically made their debut in dentistry back in 1960 [source: Parker]. American physicist Theodore Maiman developed the first laser, known as the ruby laser, that year, and exposed an extracted tooth to it. The process charred the hard tissue portion of the tooth and transferred laser energy to the pulp -- perhaps not the most auspicious result, but it sparked an interest in researching ways to incorporate lasers in dental treatments.

Over time, understanding of lasers has grown among researchers and the lasers themselves have become smaller and better suited to dental tasks, eventually making them accurate and safe enough for procedural use. By the 1990s, dentists finally had access to specialized, commercially available dental lasers [source: Parker].

Lasers (an acronym for "light amplification by the stimulation emission of radiation") deliver energy and heat in the form of light, and their uses in dentistry range from cleaning to removing tooth decay. A dental laser can also cut or eliminate tissue, such as gum tissue, when focused upon it. This works because infrared light is easily absorbed by water, and gum tissue consists largely of water [source: Parker]. Therefore, a dentist or an oral surgeon might use lasers when altering a patient's gum line.

Dentists can also use lasers to treat gum disease, because the concentrated heat generated by them is able to kill bacteria. In other situations, lasers help create brighter smiles. The tooth-bleaching chemicals used to whiten teeth are even more potent when exposed to the heat from a dental laser. Similarly, that heat can harden and "cure" a new filling that has been placed.

Many different types of lasers can now be found in dentists' offices, including short-pulsed erbium: yttrium-aluminum-garnet (Er:YAG) lasers for gum resurfacing, carbon dioxide lasers for oral surgery and Argon lasers for curing fillings.

However, since the American Dental Association (ADA) hasn't determined whether lasers provide results that are better, worse or the same as results obtained from traditional dental tools or procedures, it hasn't granted them its coveted Seal of Acceptance. Still, the association is said to remain "cautiously optimistic" about dental laser technology, and its lack of approval doesn't appear to have affected the widespread use of dental lasers [source: WebMD].

But if the ADA is still on the fence about dental lasers, why have so many dental professionals embraced them? Read on to find out more about the potential advantages -- and disadvantages -- of this technology.