As you try to avoid staring at the blazing light above, the grating sound of a dentist's drill suddenly invades the space behind your head. Clutching the arms of the glossy blue chair, you feel your entire body go rigid.
"Open wide," she says.
The news: Your most recent agonizing dentist visit could be your last. Scientists have discovered a revolutionary way to treat cavities. Using electricity, they stimulate teeth to repair themselves. Bye-bye, root canal.
The technique, developed by scientists at King's College London, is called Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralization (EAER). In the near future, sans drilling, dentists may be able to use the method to deliver a pulse of electricity to the site of a cavity, where it would encourage the tooth to rebuild the hole with restorative minerals.
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How it works: When you get a cavity, your tooth tries to patch up the damage by pushing minerals like calcium and phosphate into the hollow. The problem is that the process is too slow to prevent major damage, so the cavity festers, leading to infection and further decay. In the 1830s, dentists began filling the gaps with a mixture of metals such as liquid mercury and silver. In the 1930s, they started using solutions made from resins and silica. Unfortunately, the filling process can sometimes be painful, especially if the damage has penetrated to the root of the tooth and requires a root canal.
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The new technique would abandon the filling process entirely, instead taking advantage of your tooth's natural healing process. Using a tiny electric current, your dentist would stimulate your tooth to push its own minerals into the gap, mending the problem.
The procedure won't cost any more than a traditional filling would, said King's College professor Nigel Pitts, who led the research team that discovered the method.
Why it matters: Globally, 60% to 90% of school-aged children and nearly all adults have dental cavities, the World Health Organization estimates.
Aside from making the most terrifying trips to the dentist a thing of the past, the new tooth decay treatment could help ensure that more people receive proper dental care by simplifying and speeding up the process.