Filling a Cavity: The Process

A first-hand account of getting a cavity (or four) filled.

I’ve had a few cavities in my short lifetime so I’ve had to get a few fillings. Each time I go, I sit back in the exam chair and close my eyes as I hear an assortment of (sometimes scary) noises. I get periodic updates, ‘that’s bigger than we thought,’ but for the most part I am blissfully unaware of what is happening. Recently, my dentist walked me through the process so that I could really see the effects of not staying on top of my brushing and flossing.

Numbing

The process begins with a topical gel to numb the upper gum / lower gum (basically whichever part of the mouth the cavity is in). Once that has settled for a few minutes, you get a local anesthetic injected in the area where the tooth is. It doesn’t hurt, but there is an uncomfortable pinch. You’re given a few minutes to wait as you start to feel the tingling in your lips, face, and sometimes even under your eyelid.

Removal

The next step is to get to the actual cavity, or the tooth decay. The dentist uses a dental drill to drill into the tooth and get rid of the damaged tooth. The dentist places a high-volume suction to remove any debris that is drilled away. The dentist will then use smaller tools to refine the tooth and remove any lingering tooth decay.

Note: If you feel the drilling at all, make sure to let your dentist know. Sometimes one shot of anesthesia may not be enough. Some dentists may also give you nitrous oxide gas to reduce the pain instead of an anesthetic.

Filling

Once the cavity is removed from the tooth, it is time to fill it. There are many different materials that that are used for fillings: amalgam, composite resin, lonomers, and gold with amalgam and composite resin being the most common. I got a composite resin filling, which is the consistency of modeling clay. The dentist put a band around the tooth to separate the teeth, ensuring the natural space between them stayed and they didn’t get glued together. Then they applied acid, a bonding agent, and the composite resin filling. The dentist then cured the composite with a bright blue light to harden it.

Quality Check

After the filling has been put in, the dentist does a bite test and has you bite down on a piece of carbon paper to see if the tooth with the filling bites down like normal, or if it is too high. If it is too high, they file it down to make sure that it is the same height as your other teeth.

If you have time, or if you have any questions during a cavity filling, ask your dentist to walk you through the process or show you some of the steps. It not only helps you understand what is going on, but it can also alleviate some natural nervousness that occurs from not being able to see or know what is occurring. It is easy to avoid a cavity filling, or worse, a root canal or tooth extraction, simply by brushing and flossing every day.