Don't fall for these handpiece myths

June 25, 2013
Handpieces are central to your work and artistry. But despite how important they are to the dental practice, many dentists share some common misconceptions about these powerful tools.

by Kris Christian

Handpieces are central to your work and artistry. But despite how important they are to the dental practice, many dentists share some common misconceptions about these powerful tools. These myths can cause inefficiencies, and some can actually compromise patient safety. This article summarizes just a few of these myths, while giving you some tips on maximizing the effectiveness of your handpieces.

Myth No. 1: You can use electric and air-driven handpieces the same way.

Until recently, dental schools in the U.S. and Canada typically instructed students exclusively on handpieces with air-driven motors. Dentists learned techniques such as "feathering,” in which they brush the tooth lightly with the bur as with a paintbrush. This technique effectively compensates for the handpiece's varying levels of power.

Using an air-driven handpiece, the dentist is the one who applies the force when cutting the tooth. Despite the prevalence of air-driven handpieces, there are a number of common complaints about them, primarily that the technology does not deliver enough power and is too noisy.

These complaints have contributed to the increasing use of electric handpieces. With this mode, unlimited power in the handpiece makes it easy for dentists to cut efficiently. Electric handpieces also provide steady force, and are quieter than air-driven handpieces. This is a key factor in the patient experience. But, for a dentist who is accustomed to using only an air-driven handpiece, using an electric handpiece is a different experience. Many dentists who attempt to teach themselves to use these devices have limited success.

The truth is, just as a sculptor needs various tools for different types of work, dentists should use electric and air-driven handpieces for different purposes with different techniques. An electric handpiece provides steady power and cutting, such as a milling machine, while an air-driven handpiece is excellent for minimally invasive techniques. Dentists must invest the time in proper training to learn to use both types most efficiently.

Myth No. 2: A general restorative motor is implant capable.

In the recent past, a number of manufacturers have made claims that the general restorative motors on their handpieces are implant capable. The FDA has been cracking down on these claims. There are several reasons why using a general motor for implant dentistry is a bad idea.

First, a general motor simply does not have enough power to cover the needs of the full range of implants on the market. A specialized implant motor provides 5 Nm of torque while a general restorative motor ranges between 2.5 Nm and 3.5 Nm. Obviously, if a handpiece cannot effectively drive the implant during placement, this poses a significant safety problem.

Additional safety problems arise when you consider the need for a continuous flow of sterile irrigant during implant placement, as well as the need to shut off coolant air in order to avoid an embolism. General restorative motors have air coolant running to the motor, which exhausts around the attachment. Even if a dentist used a surgical attachment with the general restorative motor, there would still be a significant flow of air around the handpiece.

Manufacturers that make claims of oral surgery functions for their general restorative motors do not have FDA clearance to do so. Safety-minded dentists should stick to specialized motors for these purposes.

Myth No. 3: A warranty on my handpiece turbine must mean it will last longer.

Generally speaking, a new model turbine will last 18 to 24 months, regardless of the warranty. Manufacturers offer various warranties on various terms, but the bottom line is that if a product does not perform to specification, it should not require a warranty for the manufacturer to address the problem. A reputable manufacturer will stand behind a company's products and fix or replace a faulty unit.

Pay attention to the age and performance of your handpieces. When the time comes to switch out the turbine, send it to a manufacturer or dealer. Alternately, you can replace the turbine by using instructions from the manufacturer.

Dental handpieces are amazing pieces of equipment with impressive capabilities. By keeping yours in good working order and using them safely and properly, you can maximize their utility in your practice.

Kris Christian has served dentistry for nearly 19 years as an employee of A-dec. In his role as product manager, he has an opportunity to work directly with dental teams and partner companies to provide new products, and has great respect for the science and art of dentistry.

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