Medical technology has been improving at an incredible rate for the past several decades, leading to leaps and bounds in the quality of care for people around the United States. This is especially true for the dental industry.

One of the most important and exciting developments in dental diagnostic technology in the past decade has been the advent of 3D dental imaging. Cone Beam CT has some similarities with conventional X-rays, and also with the standard CT scans you would get in a hospital setting, but it’s a quantum leap forward in technology and diagnostic precision. For the dentist, it offers the ability to visualize intricate structures inside the mouth, such as root canals, nerves and sinuses in the jaw — in three dimensions — without surgery. For the patient, it can reduce the need for invasive procedures, shorten treatment time and offer the chance for a better outcome.

The detailed diagnostic images that CBCT provides have made it an essential tool in many dental specialties. But, as with any diagnostic tool that uses radiation, the medical benefits offered must be weighed against the potential risks of the procedure.

How Cone Beam CT Works

X-rays, like visible light, are a form of energy on the electromagnetic spectrum. Just as light makes an image on photographic film (or a digital camera sensor), X-rays can also form an image. The difference is that energetic X-rays can penetrate bone and soft tissue and reveal its hidden structure by their varying degrees of absorption; in other words, they form a grayscale picture of what’s underneath the surface. But conventional X-rays are limited: Like a still-life picture, they show only one perspective on the scene.

Now imagine a “flip book” — the kind of small book made up of a series of pictures, each slightly different. When you rapidly page through it, you may see an animated cartoon or a still subject from different perspectives. If you could put together a flip book made from a series of X-ray “slices” of the same subject, taken at slightly different angles, you would be able to create an “animation” of the X-rays. And from there, it’s only one more step to making a 3-D model.

#D dental x ray including the digital model and views from multiple anglesThat’s exactly what CBCT scanners do. Using a rotating imaging device that moves around the patient’s head, the scanner records between 150 and 600 different X-ray views in under a minute. Then, a powerful computer processes the information and creates a virtual model of the area under study. When it’s done, the model appears as a three-dimensional image on a computer screen: It can be rotated from side to side or up and down, examined in greater or less detail, and manipulated in any number of ways — all without the patient feeling any discomfort… or even being present.

Where Cone Beam CT Is Used

The ability to see fine anatomical structures in 3-D has proven invaluable in treating conditions in many areas of dentistry.

  • Orthodontics: Having accurate information on the position of teeth and jaws helps determine exactly how and where teeth should be moved.
  • Dental implants: Detailed CBCT images are used to determine the optimum location for the titanium implants while avoiding nerves, sinuses and areas of low bone density.
  • Orthognathic Jaw Surgery and Temporo-mandibular Joint (TMJ) Disease: Patients benefit when the specialists who treat these conditions can evaluate their anatomy with the three-dimensional perspective that cone beam CT provides.
  • Oral Surgery: Treatment for tumors or impacted teeth is aided by the level of fine detail shown in these scans.
  • Endodontics: Dentists performing intricate procedures (like complex root canals, for example) can benefit from a clearer visualization of the tooth’s anatomy.
  • Sleep Apnea: Imaging the tissues and structures of the nose, mouth and throat can aid in diagnosis and treatment of this dangerous condition.

What About Risk?Dentist sitting at computer examining x ray results

Each patient’s situation is different and must be carefully considered by a clinical professional before any test or procedure is performed. CBCT, like many diagnostic tests, delivers a smaller dose of radiation and carries a small risk — particularly for younger patients, or those with other health problems. It is true that CBCT exposes patients to a slightly higher level of radiation than an individual 2-D x-ray, but in many cases patients need multiple x-rays in order for their dentist to obtain adequate information, exposing them to a cumulatively greater amount of radiation than the highly effective CBCT. As is the case for any medical procedure, all risks, benefits and alternatives are taken into account by your dentist before any procedure is recommended.

What Next?

If you’re thinking about having some dental work done, need a check-up, or just have more questions about the benefits or risks of CBCT imaging, call Apple Valley Dental Group today! Our professional and highly trained staff will be happy to answer your questions and help you schedule an appointment.

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Apple Valley Dental Group
869 John Marshall Highway
Front Royal, VA 22630

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