Modern dental fillings are usually made of mercury free, composite or ceramic materials first created in scientific laboratories. A wide range of white colorings are available to mimic the shade of a patient’s natural teeth. These modern fillings look and feel similar to the rest of the tooth and can be molded and bonded to fit perfectly. They have no heavy metals or metals which could cause allergic sensitivity. Modern advances in dental treatment make fillings nearly undetectable. Examining the history of dentistry provide some interesting facts about dental fillings.
• One of the earliest materials used is still with us today: gold. Teeth with gold filling have been dated as far back as the Roman Empire. Gold was an obvious choice because of its relative softness when compared to other metals. It is still one of the best materials to use on back molars where the gold can be made very thin, yet still last and perform as a chewing surface about as well as natural enamel. It is very biocompatible and virtually non-allergenic.
• Archeologists have found evidence from the Middle Ages that show cork and small stones were used to fill teeth. Cork’s malleability made it a viable option but, being a wood it is porous, and it almost certainly worked to trap liquid which would lead to further tooth decay.
• Around the time of the Renaissance European dentists developed a procedure to fill teeth with various metals. They soaked the metal in acid to dissolve it and poured it into a hole in the tooth they made with tiny metal picks. The metal would then solidify but not before causing burns to the patients mouth and further damage to the tooth.
In the mid 1800s dental amalgam (a mixture of mercury and silver) became widely used. Amalgam can be easily shaped to fill cavities and even rebuild an entire tooth. Although not very esthetic, it is still widely used today.
• The 20th century saw the birth of electricity and modern dentistry. The first electric drills made removal of decay much faster and more precise. Around the same time came the first silicon based fillings. These fillings were the first esthetic materials in that they could be made in various tooth shades. Unfortunately they were not very strong or durable and could only be used on front teeth.
Today our composite materials look and feel like real teeth. They have no mercury or metals, are very durable, and have an advantage in that they can be bonded to teeth. We can use composites to veneer teeth to improve a smile or to fix cavities in front teeth or molars. Unfortunately, many insurance companies will still only pay for amalgam (silver-mercury) in back teeth.