Blake Snow

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Are beeping teeth the same as x-ray verified cavities?

Back in my day, dentists relied on x-ray to detect cavities!

I have my teeth professionally cleaned and examined at least once a year. Twice if my teeth are feeling extra grimy, which is usually every other year.

Three years ago, my old dentist probed my teeth with an “explorer.” This handheld device supposedly beeps every time it detects a cavity and did once for me. My visual and x-ray exams, however, came back negative.

Of course, instead of saying, “Blake, you have a cavity and I recommend filling it,” my dentist told the hygienist in short hand, “O-6” or something of the sort. You know how they do.

I asked him to clarify what that meant. He answered, “Well, the device detected some softness, but we can just check-up at your next visit instead of filling it now.” In other words, “Well, it’s not a problem, but it could be, so we’ll just watch it.”

Watch it I have over the past three years with one semi-annual and two annual dental exams (total of four times in three years). Same thing always happens. My visual and x-ray exams come back negative. My tooth beeps. And my new dentist (the old one retired) spouts off some cryptic code and “assumes the sale,” so to speak, encouraging me to have it filled.

From what I can tell, the beeping tooth hasn’t worsened in three years, nor has my dentists’ reaction. Even still, my new dentist detected two more “beeping” but x-ray negative spots.

“Are these cavities?” I asked him earlier this month. “Well, they are soft spots and I recommend filling them,” he replied.

That left me confused. “Are soft spots the same as tooth decay?” The answer: “If it were me, I’d get them filled,” he dodged politely. I left without confirmation that beeping teeth were the same as decaying teeth. I left still holding on to my retired dentists’ approach with beeping teeth: “We can watch it if you like with regular checkups.”

Look, I’m all for filling cavities. In fact, I have done so more than 10 times in my adult life. More if you count baby teeth. And I admit I’m susceptible to decay even though I brush twice daily, use floride mouthwash, and floss every other day.

But unless my memory fails me, in the past I have only filled confirmed cavities where x-ray, painful, or visual exams have come back positive.

Unfortunately, the last time that happened I was in my early twenties—more than 10 years ago. Has dentistry really changed that much in 10 years? Is this a strategy on the part of dentists to boost invoicing during tough economic times? Or am I living up to my reputation as a hard-headed guy without dental insurance who’s reluctant to part with $500?

I like my current dentist and his immaculate and spared-no expense office and want to take care of my teeth. But I feel in the dark at this point which is never a good feeling. Can anyone explain this to me?

See also: Guide to dental cavities and fillings