Preventive vs. Restorative Dental Care: What’s That Smile Worth?


What’s the best way to avoid the need for costly dental procedures? The short answer: See your dentist right now! That might seem like a contradiction – but it really isn’t. To find out why, let’s compare the cost of preventive dental care (procedures aimed at avoiding disease) to restorative care (procedures designed to fix the damage that disease has caused).

Tooth decay, caused by bacteria found in the mouth, is the number one chronic disease in the world. It produces the tiny holes in the tooth’s hard enamel surface that we know as cavities. If not treated promptly, cavities can get larger and larger, and decay bacteria can go on to infect the tooth’s pulp and the surrounding gum and bone tissue. This can result in painful root canal problems, potentially serious abscesses in the gums, and even tooth loss. And once a single tooth is lost, the potential increases for the cascading loss of even more teeth.

Most people know about cavities firsthand; in fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 91 percent of adults age 20-64 have at least one.  But here’s something you may not know: Today, cavities are almost completely preventable! At routine dental visits, kids can get fluoride treatments, sealants, and topical gels or varnishes at a modest cost. When combined with good at-home oral hygiene, these clinical treatments can reduce the prevalence of cavities to near zero.

But surprisingly, according to a recent CDC report, only about one in seven kids take advantage of these treatments. What’s more, the CDC estimates that 27% of adults have untreated tooth decay right now! Why don’t more people get the necessary and effective dental procedures they need? One of the main reasons they cite is the cost of dental care.

It’s true that dental treatment isn’t cheap (although there are several ways to save money on it, such as joining a dental savings plan). But when you compare the cost of prevention or early treatment to the cost of restorative care, there’s no contest: Prevention costs much less. How much?

First, let’s look at kids’ teeth. On top of the cost of a regular dental checkup, the cost to apply topical fluoride to the mouth, or to apply sealant to an individual tooth, is probably less than the cost of a meal for four at a family restaurant. On the other hand, the cost of treating a cavity initially is likely to be several times that figure. The filling will probably need to be replaced at some time in the future, and the tooth may eventually need restoration with a crown or cap, which can cost $1,000 or more.

Of course, whether cavities occur in a child or an adult, it’s important to have them treated right away. If you don’t, the tooth may need a root canal before it can be restored –potentially, an even more costly procedure. But if you manage to ignore the toothache pain and skip the root canal, things don’t get better. Tooth loss is often the final result of untreated decay. And here’s where the numbers really add up.

Several studies have pegged the direct and indirect costs of treating a missing tooth at between $5,000 and $35,000 over a lifetime – a big number indeed! That’s one reason why dental professionals stress the importance of preventive care. This even applies to senior citizens: Researchers at the University of Maryland have shown that Medicare recipients who used their benefits for preventive care had more dental visits overall – but their overall expenses were significantly lower… and we’re willing to bet their smiles were healthier, too.

With the assistance of modern dentistry, it’s never too late to get a great-looking smile. But one fact is clear: If you need dental treatment, there’s no advantage in waiting. The sooner you have a dental problem taken care of, the happier your smile (and your pocketbook) will be.

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