What to Expect at the Dentist

A visit to the dentist doesn't have to be something to dread. Dentists and hygienists want to help, and they'll usually try to make your office visit as easy as possible.

You can often watch movies or TV. They may break up work into many visits so it's not too much in one sitting. And there are options for pain relief or sedation during procedures.

Making it to the chair puts you closer to better health and smiling with more confidence.

Before the Appointment

Plan enough time off from work or school to feel less rushed or anxious about getting back. When you make your appointment, ask how long a cleaning and exam usually take, then add extra time to that. You'll be in the dentist's chair longer if it's been a while since your last visit. An end-of-day appointment is a good option so you can go right home.

If you have dental insurance, see if your dentist is in-network to save money. You may have to pay a co-pay when you're at the office, or your dentist might bill you the balance after your insurance pays them. If you don't have insurance, find out ahead of time how much you should plan to pay at your appointment.

On the day, get there early so you can fill out paperwork (or turn it in if forms are available online ahead of time) and give the staff time to set you up. Have your driver's license and insurance card ready when you check in at the reception desk.

A Routine Visit

A dental hygienist covers your chest with a plastic or paper cloth, and you may get eye shields to wear, too. You'll see a tray of metal and perhaps ultrasonic tools. The hygienist uses these, working a tooth at a time, to scrape off any hard buildup of plaque and tartar on the surfaces and along your gumline. They may floss between your teeth, too.

If your jaw hurts or you have mouth pain while they're cleaning, let the hygienist know. You can have rest breaks when you need them.

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After that's done, you'll rinse well. Using a tool with a spinning head, the hygienist polishes your teeth. You might even get to choose the flavor of buffing paste. And you'll rinse again.

Typically, you'll get X-rays every year or so to help find problems that are just starting or are hard to see.

Then the hygienist brings the dentist in to do a thorough exam, checking each tooth and looking for pockets or gaps between your teeth and gums.

A tool called a periodontal probe, which could be metal or ultrasonic, helps the dentist find problem spots. It can also measure the depth of any gum pockets. The hygienist often stays to record notes in your chart.

Afterward, the dentist will talk to you about how things are looking and what's next.

A First or Non-Routine Visit

If it's been a while since you've seen the dentist, you can expect the same care as a routine visit, as well as some extras.

New patient appointments and visits after more than a couple of years have passed usually require X-rays. The dentist wants a complete look at what's going on inside your teeth, gums, and supporting bone structures.

Plan to hang in there for a deep cleaning session with the hygienist. The longer you wait between visits, the more hard tartar builds up on teeth and around the gumline. (If your teeth are sensitive, talk to the hygienist or dentist about numbing options to lessen pain before the work starts.) Having tartar removed can be uncomfortable, but the clean, smooth feel of your teeth after is well worth it. You'll have fresher breath, too.

When the dentist probes your teeth and checks the gums for pockets, it may hurt and bleed a bit. The pain shouldn't last long.

Don't be overwhelmed if the dentist finds problems. By getting this appointment done, you're already on the way to fixing them with your dentist's help. And if you have good dental habits after this, routine follow-up visits will be easier.

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After the Visit

If your mouth is sore, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers.

Call the office between routine visits if you have questions, your teeth hurt, or your jaw swells. Issues like broken teeth are an emergency, and you should let your dentist know right away.

Follow-up Care

When your mouth is healthy, you should probably get a cleaning and exam every 6 months. Depending on what the dentist finds during your exam, they'll recommend a treatment plan, dealing with the most needed care first.

To take care of problems, you'll likely need to come back sooner than you would for another routine visit.

You may need fillings to close up cavities in the teeth before they get larger. For more serious decay, crowns surround and cover the core of the damaged tooth, keeping the root in place. This "cap" is cemented in place to look and feel like the real thing.

Cosmetic bonding, veneers, and shaping can improve the appearance of any broken and discolored teeth. Ask your dentist about options for improving your overall smile.

To start healing gum problems, scaling and root planing clean the sides of the teeth below the gumline so the gums can tighten up around the roots better. You may need X-rays every 6 months to check your progress.

If the dentist finds infection or swelling in the roots of a tooth, you might need a root canal. This treatment involves opening the tooth and cleaning the inside before closing it back up. You may need to see a specialist called an endodontist.

Your dentist might recommend replacing any missing or very damaged teeth with implants or bridges. Implants are screws made of titanium metal that go into your jawbone and act as anchors for crowns. Unlike removable dentures, these long-term replacements stay put. They look and work like your natural teeth. Bridges fill, or "bridge," the gap between missing teeth when anchored to healthy teeth on each side or to implants.

Whatever plan of care your dentist recommends, you will also need a plan for paying for the work. For more complex procedures, you may be able to set up a payment plan to cover your part of the cost.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on June 15, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "Gingivitis," "Cavities/tooth decay."

Cleveland Clinic: "Dental X-rays," "Dental Check-up," "Dental Crowns."

NASA Spinoff: "Periodontal Probe Improves Exams, Alleviates Pain."

American Dental Association: "American Dental Association Statement on Regular Dental Visits."

Mouth Healthy: "Crowns."

American Academy of Periodontology: "Non-Surgical Periodontal Treatment," "Full Mouth Dental Implants." "Multiple Tooth Implants."

American Association of Endodontists: "Root Canal Treatment."

American Academy of Implant Dentistry: "Types of implants and techniques."

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