3D Dental Imaging

By Catherine M. Fascilla, D.D.S.

Everyone knows what dental x-rays are. Anyone who has been to the dentist has had x-rays taken. They are very important because they reveal hidden dental structures and pathology that cannot be seen with a visual exam. This includes and is not limited to impacted wisdom teeth, abscesses, cavities between the teeth, bone loss due to gum disease, cysts, tumors and malignancies in the jaws.

Dental x-rays are two-dimensional images, which means that images are superimposed on each other and certain structures block the view of others. For instance, we are unable to view what is inside a metal crown or behind a silver filling. Similarly, an abscess or other pathology can be blocked by roots of teeth. These are just a few examples.

3D dental imaging is new diagnostic technology that allows the dentist to see even more. It uses a device called a cone-beam CT scanner. It is similar to computerized axial tomography , better known as CAT scans but exposes the patient to less radiation. During a CAT scan, multiple x-ray images are taken. They are then pieced together in a computer to create a three-dimensional model. This technology is very useful in implant dentistry because the high resolution scans provide great detail of the teeth, jawbone, gums and various other structures such as nerves. This helps determine the best possible placement of dental implants. It is also very useful in the diagnosis and treatment of TMJ disorders, oral cancer screenings and wisdom teeth removal.

Because these scans expose a patient to more radiation than other dental x-rays and because of the high cost of these devices (typically $100,000 or more) 3D imaging is not typically done in most general dental offices. These scanners are more commonly found in the offices of oral surgeons and periodontists. Because of the important role that they play in the surgical placement of dental implants, 3D imaging is increasingly becoming the standard of care for such procedures.