Before answering this question, we should know what a filling is. A filling is the procedure used to place in a tooth a material with properties similar to the natural tooth structure. It is needed when part of the original structure has been lost due to causes such as tooth decay or trauma. Tooth decay is a bacteria-driven process that erodes the minerals in your teeth, making them weaker. Over time the bacteria travel through the layers of the tooth, the harder outer enamel shell and the softer inner dentine to cause deeper breakdown of the tooth, resulting in a hole.
The purpose of a filling – or what dentists tend to call a “restoration” – is to “restore” a tooth to how it should look and function.
But how do you know if you need a filling? You will need a filling if you can feel a hole in any of your teeth. You will also need a filling if, during a regular check-up, your dentist has detected a hole or suspects hidden decay.
And why are restorations important?
Administered early, a filling serves to prevent tooth decay progression, so that bacteria do not reach the middle of the tooth where the nerve and blood vessels are. Often if you feel pain or already have a hole, the tooth decay is more severe and closer to the nerve. This causes inflammation of the nerve and blood vessels, and can eventually lead to death of the nerve and tooth. If that happens, you may require more complicated treatment such as an extraction or root canal treatment.
The main thing to be aware of is that not everyone will feel pain or have a hole in their tooth before they need a filling. That is why it is important to go to a dentist for a regular comprehensive check-up. At a check-up, the dentist will examine the whole of your mouth – including your tongue, cheeks, gums and jaws – before looking at your teeth. They may take X-rays and perform other tests to help diagnose decay and other oral conditions. The X-rays allow visualisation of the teeth in cross-section, and any dark spots can indicate decay that we might not be able to see with our eyes. If the decay is deep enough, you may be told that it requires a filling to prevent the decay going deeper.
So remember to go to your dentist regularly for a check-up. That way, the dentist can identify any early signs of decay (as well as other conditions present) and can help stem progression of decay with a filling or other preventative measures.
Dr Tristan Balthazaar
BSc (Melb), BBiomedSc (Melb), DDS (Melb)