One of the most commonly performed dental procedures is filling a tooth. Most of us have probably had a tooth filled at some point as a means of ridding the tooth of decay. If you’re thinking that the dental filling is strictly a modern-day treatment, think again! The fact is that fillings in one form or another have been around for a very long time.
The earliest known dental fillings were discovered in Pakistan and date back to between 7,500 and 9,500 years ago. Other ancient fillings made from beeswax can be traced back to about 6,500 years ago. At that point in human history, people were using their teeth for more than simply chewing their food – they would use their teeth like tools as well. So you can imagine what kind of tooth damage might occur as a result!
Much later, in the 19th century, people began using metal to create fillings. At that time, they weren’t too particular about the specific metal used, as long as it could be softened and molded to fill the tooth. So people would use virtually any type of metal, such as tin, silver, or gold, for example. It wasn’t until late in the 19th century when dental amalgam was first used; a material that was made from a combination of copper, tin, silver, and mercury. This amalgam material began being widely used in the 1920s, making its way to this country in the 1930s.
While it’s true that silver amalgam was a durable and effective method for filling teeth, there was (and is) an understandable concern about the amount of mercury present in amalgam. Although it’s never been proven to be harmful in dental patients, it’s fair to say that most people would prefer to avoid long-term exposure to any amount of mercury if possible. But mercury wasn’t the only drawback to amalgam. The popular filling material eventually darkens over time, leaving a dental restoration that looks black – not exactly an attractive way to save a tooth.
So it only made sense to find an alternative to silver amalgam, which is exactly what happened in the 20th century. At that time, a growing number of dentists began to use porcelain or a composite material for dental fillings. Today, while amalgam and metal fillings are still available from some dentists, most dental providers and patients alike prefer tooth-colored fillings. Not only are the porcelain and composite materials strong and durable – they can also be created to exactly match the shade of the patient’s natural teeth. To find out more about tooth-colored fillings, talk to your dentist.