Rubber Dental Dams: What They Are and Why Dentists Use Them

Rubber Dental Dams: What They Are and Why Dentists Use Them

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Rubber Dental Dam Advantages
©Hightowernrw/Shutterstock.com

Have you ever gone to the dentist and had them put a big rubber blanket over your mouth?

In 1864 (nearly 150 years ago), a New York City dentist by the name of S.C. Barnum invented the rubber dam for use in dentistry.  He was looking for an easy way to isolate the particular teeth that he wanted to work on during procedures.

The rubber dam is simply a thin sheet of rubber that is clamped around the tooth or teeth that will be worked on.  There are many advantages to using a rubber dam, some of which are listed below.

9 Advantages of Dental Rubber Dams

Pink Rubber Dental Dam1 – The dentist is better able to visualize the tooth or teeth that he is repairing.  By providing a contrasting background, the rubber dam makes the tooth easier to visualize.  If the dentist can see better, chances are you’ll get a better filling.

2 – It helps keep the tooth dry.  Amalgam fillings aren’t as good if they are used in a wet tooth.  Bonding composite fillings to the tooth also doesn’t work very well if it is wet.  So rubber dams lend to the success of such procedures by keeping teeth dry.

3 – It protects the patient in several ways:

  • It prevents the patient from breathing in the debris associated with drilling teeth.
  • It protects the patient from irritating chemicals used in dentistry such as those used to disinfect a root canal or the acids used to etch teeth to prepare them to be filled with a composite resin filling
  • It protects the patient’s tongue and cheek from the dental drill

4 – It helps isolate the tooth from the bacteria in the mouth – this is especially important in a root canal treatment and when restoring very large cavities that are close to the pulp.  It is important to keep the pulp shielded away from the many bacteria that live in your mouth.

Green Rubber Dental Dam - Photo Courtesy of Produnis

5 – It can shorten the duration of a procedure. When using a rubber dam, there isn’t a tongue constantly in the way and it is easier for the dentist to drill with no other distractions in the mouth visible.  This increases the dentist’s efficiency, which means you can leave the dental office sooner!

An interesting side effect of rubber dam is that they discourage the patient from talking.  If the dentist wants to get a rubber dam on you as soon as you walk into the office, it could be a sign that you’re pretty talkative!

6 – It can calm down a patient. With the rubber dam on, it may not feel like the dentist is really inside your mouth.  It kind of adds a layer of separation between your body and the dentist.  This is helpful for patients who become anxious during procedures.

7  – It can help in the administration of nitrous oxide (this is especially true with children ) since it forces the patient to primarily breathe through their nose.

8 – It protects the dentist and dental assistants from any diseases that the patient may have. Did you know that if a dentist drills on one of your teeth for 30 seconds, the dentist is exposed to as much bacteria as he or she would be if you sneezed right in their face?  Here’s the source for that fact. For more on how dental dams prevent the spread of infection from the dental patient to others, here’s a study, another one, and yet another one.

Rubber Dental Dam Isolating Six Front Teeth

9 – Rubber dams give you a higher quality tooth restorationA study by Dr. Gordon Christsenen concluded that rubber dams allow the dentist to perform better, thus creating a higher-quality restored tooth in the end.

Why Some Dentists Don’t Use Rubber Dams

Rubber Dental Dam Clamps
Rubber dam clamps that can be used to anchor the dam around various teeth.

Some dentists think that rubber dams take too much time to place or that the patients dislike them.  To be honest, it does take some time to put a rubber dam on a patient.  You have to punch a few holes in the rubber dam for each tooth and put a clamp around the tooth to stabilize the dam.  To make sure that the clamp doesn’t fall down the patient’s throat when you put it in, you have to wrap floss around it.  Finally, you have to stretch the rubber dam around the clamp and floss it between all of the teeth that you want to be visible through the rubber dam.

At my dental school, they usually require us to put a rubber dam on our patients when we are doing fillings.  After doing this so often, it has become easy to put a rubber dam on a patient.  Plus, there is usually a period of a few minutes that the dentist has to wait for the anesthesia to begin working.  Those few minutes are the perfect opportunity to put a rubber dam on, and as I mentioned above, using a rubber dam can shorten the duration of a procedure overall.

Do You Like Rubber Dams?

Have you ever had a rubber dam?  Was it a good experience?  Some patients I’ve talked to say they like it, and others find it uncomfortable.

If you have any questions or comments about rubber dams, please leave them below in the comments section.

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