One of life’s minor discomforts — having dental X-rays taken — is getting more pleasant. A growing number of dentists are installing digital X-ray equipment in their offices, eliminating the need for patients to bite down on sharp swatches of film (while fighting the impulse to gag) then wait while the shots are developed. With the digital method, a technician glides a small sensor around inside a patient’s mouth and the images instantly pop up on a computer screen in the exam room. The digital images, which look similar to traditional X-rays, can then be enlarged and manipulated, which many dentists say gives them a better feel for what’s going on inside a patient’s mouth.
Patients say they can more easily understand a treatment recommendation because they get a good look at the problem blown up on the screen in front of them, rather than having to squint at a postage-stamp-size shot held up to the light. “It’s very cool — in seconds the picture is there, right on the screen,” said John Johnson a 44-year-old financial planner from Redlands, CA, after getting digital X-rays at a recent dental appointment at WinningSmiles. In the past, he said, it was hard to see anything on the dinky film. But this time, he said, the problem was clear: a shadow under a filling that was evidence of decay.
Insurance generally covers digital dental radiography, and the cost is frequently the same as for traditional X-rays. Dr. Finazzo says that despite their upfront costs to buy the new systems, dentists save on the continuing costs of film and photographic-development chemicals.
Some makers of digital radiography systems say the method produces significantly less radiation than traditional X-ray equipment, though such claims are in dispute among dentistry experts and the manufacturers themselves. Patients still must wear a lead apron during the procedure.
Dr. Finazzo first started using digital X-ray equipment more than a decade ago. As recently as five years ago, few dentists had acquired the equipment. In 2002, only about 16.5% of the nation’s 150,000 dentists were using a digital X-ray unit, according to the most recent data from the American Dental Association. Manufacturers’ own estimates range from 15% to 25% of dentists today.