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How 3D-Printed Teeth and Other New Tech are Transforming Dental Care

Image of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jaden Murry had nearly all of his lower jaw removed because of a tumor. The procedure was the DOD’s first ever immediate jaw reconstruction surgery using 3D-printed teeth. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jaden Murry had nearly all of his lower jaw removed because of a tumor. The procedure was the DOD’s first ever immediate jaw reconstruction surgery using 3D-printed teeth. (Photo: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jacob L. Greenberg, NMCSD)

Dentistry and the tools to improve the dental field have come a long way from the days of George Washington, when he endured painful metal dentures made with horse and cow teeth.

Thanks to technology, the evolution of dentistry is improving patient care. One key milestone for the Department of Defense came in November 2020 when doctors conducted the first jaw reconstruction surgery using 3D-printed teeth.

Some major advances in dentistry include advances in imaging technology, such as 3D imaging, computer aided design and 3D printing, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Daniel Hammer, a maxillofacial surgical oncologist and reconstructive surgeon at Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD). Hammer took part in the first surgery implanting the 3D-printed teeth.

"We are able to obtain 3D imaging of the facial skeleton with increased accuracy and decreased radiation dose," Hammer said.

They can use 3D images to plan reconstruction of the patient's face with unprecedented accuracy, he added.

"These [digital] impressions are more accurate and do not require additional laboratory work," said Hammer. "If a physical model is needed, we're able to print the scan on our 3D printers."

By leveraging computer-aided design, he said, doctors can now print or mill the final teeth or surgical guides at NMCSD.

These types of advances in dental technologies have improved patient outcomes as well as treatment options and clinical scheduling, said Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Mike Andersen, a maxillofacial prosthodontist at NMCSD.

Doctors are now able to do far more in a single surgical procedure. "We're able to combine numerous surgical procedures that were once split up over years of treatment," he said.

As a bonus, the advances make patients more willing to get treatment when needed, Andersen said.

He admits he's still in awe of being able to immediately see the patient's teeth on the machine in real time.

"The ability to immediately transfer that data to our imaging software to discuss and plan cases with our team is unbelievably more accurate, consistent, and predictable than traditional methods," he added.

High-tech tools and technologies have allowed dentistry to advance further than ever before to improve patient care. High-tech tools and technologies have allowed dentistry to advance further than ever before to improve patient care. (Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Jacob L. Greenberg)

The imaging data can be used to create essential tools such as orthodontic retainers, night guards, milled or printed prototype teeth, or even final restorations, he said.

These technologies also help better explain procedures and treatment options to patients, said Hammer.

"With 3D planning and printing, I can better articulate to our patients what we plan to complete and achieve for each procedure," he said. "They're empowered to ask questions and have an easier time understanding the complexity of these procedures because they're holding models and seeing images of their own procedure completed in a virtual world."

The more the patient understands before the procedure, the better their post-operative experience is, he said.

The Psychological Impact

"The preservation or rehabilitation of a patient's [teeth condition] is critical to their overall health," said Hammer. "That includes their mental health."

He explained, for example, that when he discusses the removal of a jaw tumor with his patients, most of them are very concerned about the possible removal of their teeth.

Andersen added there's a "tremendous psychosocial component to dental and oral health."

"A significant proportion of patients with maxillofacial injuries suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders," he said.

He explained that many patients struggle daily with essential life functions such as swallowing, speaking, and chewing, but also with self-esteem and body image."

"Whether our patients have cancer, trauma, or benign tumors, our goal is for patients to awaken from surgery with not only the pathology removed and a new craniofacial reconstruction, but to also have a full complement of implant-retained prosthetic teeth for immediate improvement of speech, swallowing, function, and overall quality of life."

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