What is an Amalgam Filling?

Many people are familiar with the term “amalgam” in dentistry, and most people over the age of fifty years have amalgam fillings in their mouths.  This week’s article will explain what amalgam fillings are and what you should know about them.

What is Amalgam?

The word amalgam simply means a mixture or blend, so you might hear the term used outside of dentistry.  Some people say the word amalgamation as a synonym of combination.  In dentistry, amalgam refers to a specific type of dental filling material.  Dental amalgams are a mixture or blend of various metals that create a strong, stable replacement for lost tooth structure.

Dental amalgam is a mixture of a liquid and a powder that is triturated (mixed together very vigorously by a machine) to form a malleable material that hardens within a few minutes.  The liquid is elemental mercury, and the powder is a blend of silver, tin, and copper.

Many people call this type of filling a “silver filling” or “metal filling”.  Some dentists refer to it as an “alloy”.  So you may hear a variety of names used to describe the same thing.

Is Amalgam Safe?

Because amalgam fillings contain mercury, there is concern regarding the safety of this dental material.  Mercury can be toxic to the brain or kidney when someone is exposed to it at high levels.  Current evidence does not show that exposure to mercury from dental amalgam fillings will lead to any health problems in the general population.

To read the American Dental Association’s statement affirming the safety of dental amalgam fillings, click here.  This statement includes multiple scientific studies showing no adverse health problems caused by the mercury in dental amalgams.

What are the Advantages of Amalgam Fillings?

Amalgam fillings have several advantages over other dental restorative materials, which is why they are still in use in dental schools, the military, and other types of dental practice.

  • Strong – Dental amalgams can easily withstand chewing forces. The metal material is capable of rebuilding large portions of a severely broken down tooth.
  • Long lasting – When placed properly by the dentist and well-cared for by the patient, dental amalgams can last for decades.
  • Antibacterial – Silver is a natural bacteria fighter. This helps amalgam fillings fight the development of new cavities.
  • Low Cost – Dental amalgam remains one of the least expensive materials for fillings that dentists can use.

What are the Disadvantages of Amalgam Fillings?

The advantages make amalgam sound like a great filling material, don’t they?  Unfortunately, the disadvantages do tend to outweigh the advantages, which is why most private practice dentists do not currently place new amalgam fillings in their patients’ mouths.

  • Cosmetically unattractive – The biggest complaint that patients make against amalgam fillings is their appearance. Obviously, they are metal, and they do not blend in with the surrounding tooth.  Patients do not like seeing them when laughing or speaking.
  • Requires removal of healthy tooth structure – The biggest complaint by dentists against amalgam fillings is the necessity of removing healthy tooth structure in order to place them. The material requires very specific parameters for the preparation of the tooth, and those parameters include removing healthy tooth structure in addition to the decayed portion.  This means that it is not a conservative filling material.  As a conservative dentist, Dr. Chowning wants to preserve as much healthy tooth structure as possible.
  • Not repairable – Unlike other types of dental fillings, we cannot repair a broken amalgam restoration. When there is a problem with an amalgam filling, we must remove the entire thing and replace it all.
  • Potential risk from mercury to vulnerable individuals – Some patients do have a higher risk for health problems from mercury exposure. There are also true allergies to amalgam fillings.

More Questions about Amalgam Fillings?

Call Timberlake Dental at 940-382-1750 to schedule a consultation with Dr. Chowning.  He can answer any questions you have about amalgam fillings and assess any that you may have in your mouth.

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