Root Planing and Scaling Explained

Root planing and scaling are treatments for gum disease.
Root planing and scaling are treatments for gum disease.

You know the feeling. Maybe you have some teeth that are a little bit sensitive or your gums bleedwhen you floss or brush. You're dreading your next dental visit, fearing what your dentist is going to say. What if it's gum disease? Will that mean dental surgery?

Don't stress too much. Even if do you have the signs of gum disease, like swelling or bleeding gums, sensitive or loose teeth, and bad breath that just won't go away, there's a good chance your dentist won't go straight to surgery to treat it [source: National Institute of Dental and Crainial Research]. One common non-surgical treatment for gum disease is actually a pair of procedures that your dentist, hygienist or periodontist will do together: root planing and scaling.

These procedures are basically a deep dental cleaning. Scaling involves removing built-up plaque below the gum line using either manual scraping instruments or an ultrasonic tool. When your dentist does your root planing, he'll essentially be gently sanding your teeth, removing rough spots on the tooth surfaces and roots, which tend to harbor bacteria [source: University of Maryland Medical Center].

There are two different methods that your dentist can use: mechanical, involving dental tools to manually scrape away debris, or ultrasonic, where a tiny vibrating wand breaks up plaque and cleans your teeth [source: Healthwise]. The ultrasonic method is less uncomfortable, because instead of digging and scraping, the wand moves side to side at a high speed to break up and remove plaque and bacteria. Sometimes dentists will combine ultrasonic with mechanical methods, like dental chisels, to remove plaque below the gumline [source: Turchetta].

While root planing and scaling are not high-risk procedures, there is a risk of infection in the gums. To prevent infection after the procedure, your dentist might insert antibiotic fibers into your gums which come out about a week after the procedure. If you're at high risks for infection, you may have to take antibiotics before and after the procedure, to prevent bacteria from entering your bloodstream [source: Healthwise].

When is root planing and scaling appropriate, and how do you care for your mouth after the procedures are complete?