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When a Dental Inlay Is Your Best Option

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Suppose your dentist or dental hygienist has found tooth decay or other damage in your mouth that needs restoration. You're probably wondering what type of covering your tooth will receive after the damage is fixed. While we sometimes loosely use the term "fillings" to discuss tooth restoration, there are actually a few types of dental restoration options available. These include fillings, dental inlays, and dental onlays.

You may have questions about your different options like: What is a dental inlay? How does it differ from a dental onlay? And which one will my dental professional recommend for my form of dental damage? Let's go over why a dental inlay may be right for you and how it differs from other tooth restoration forms.

What Is an Inlay?

A dental inlay is a pre-molded filling fitted into the grooves of your tooth. It's most often used as restoration for cavities (also known as dental caries) that are centered in your tooth instead of along the outer edges or "cusps." These cavities have usually not progressed into more extensive tooth decay.

Getting a dental inlay put onto your tooth is a relatively painless and straightforward process. Your dental professional will numb the damaged area of your mouth with a local anesthetic and then drill into the affected tooth to clean out the decay. Once cleaned out, your dental professional will take an impression of your tooth's top crevice area and send it to a lab. Porcelain or composite resin material usually make up dental inlays, matching the color of your tooth. They provide almost invisible dental restoration and are usually more durable than regular fillings.

How an Inlay Differs from an Onlay or Filling

With what you know now about a dental inlay, it probably sounds pretty appealing! If you have minor tooth decay, a fracture, or other dental damage, getting this type of restorative care may be ideal. But sometimes, other forms of dental restoration are necessary.

For example, a dental onlay is for repairing a tooth with more extensive damage that spreads to the cusp or biting surface. While an inlay is usually for a cavity in your tooth's grooves, an onlay covers the higher points around the edges of your tooth. Getting a dental onlay requires a similar procedure as an inlay. Your oral care professional will numb the affected area with a local anesthetic. They will then drill your tooth to clean out the cavity or damaged area, remove any decayed or damaged tooth material and insert a temporary dental onlay. Like with an inlay, your dental professional will then take an impression and send it to a lab. A week or so later, your permanent onlay will arrive, and your dental professional will fit it into your tooth.

And what about a filling? You've most likely heard of this dental procedure and perhaps already have one! Fillings, used to fill in a small area of your tooth where a dental professional cleaned out a cavity, can be made from several substances. They range from the more typical amalgam – a mixture of metals, to a composite of glass and acrylic resin. But traditional fillings can have a downside. As noted in a literature review published in the Journal of Dental Health, Oral Disorders & Therapy, metal fillings can weaken tooth strength by up to 50%. In comparison, inlays and onlays made of porcelain and composite materials can increase tooth strength up to 75% and last between ten and thirty years!

The positive aspects of fillings are that they need only one dental appointment, are less expensive, and are appropriate for small cavities. In contrast, inlays and outlays are for larger damaged areas. Think of inlays and outlays as a middle ground between fillings and crowns.

When to Choose an Inlay

Even when you keep up a rigorous oral health routine and consistently attend your dental checkups, damage can still occur. Your dental professional may recommend an inlay if your biting surface matches these criteria:

  • Broken, fractured, or decayed teeth that do not affect the cusps of your tooth.
  • The damage is extensive enough to need a large dental filling that could weaken the remaining structure.
  • The injury level does not allow for the removal of enough tooth material to support mounting a crown.

Post-Procedure Inlay Care

For your inlay to have long-lasting effects, the first 48 hours after the procedure are key. Avoid foods and drinks of extreme temperatures, as well as sticky or hard foods. Stay with soft, simple nourishment for a few days to give your mouth a gentle rest. You may feel numb or sore for a day or two after your procedure. Once this subsides, don't be shy about getting back to your full oral health routine!

Inlays, onlays, and fillings are all valuable restorative procedures, and you should have a conversation with your dental professional about which one is best for you. Getting an inlay may be right for you because of the materials' strength and durability and how this procedure promotes a longer lifespan for your teeth.

Regardless of the option you and your dental professional choose, oral health prevention is critical. You should brush your teeth twice a day, floss (also known as interdental cleaning) once a day, and rinse with mouthwash to wash away any remaining bacteria. This routine, along with attending dental checkups, is your greatest form of prevention. It should help you minimize the risk of getting cavities, which, in turn, gives you a much smaller chance of ever needing these procedures.

While finding out you have some damage in your mouth is never ideal, you have restorative care options. You and your dental professional can discuss the best option for you to help bring confidence back to your smile!

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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