The Humble Handpiece Has Set the Course for the Amazing Advancements
It may come as little surprise, but as many as three quarters of adults still experience some degree of fear or apprehension when visiting your dental practice. It’s not your fault, of course—you do your best to care for and comfort them. But it may also originate in the very idea of you using your dental handpiece in their mouths. This complex drill exists to help better treat patients, and while the loud sound it produces may be the primary source of nervousness for many, it’s also the result of centuries of innovation culminating in a more refined tool that has changed the face of modern dentistry forever.
Did you know that the earliest known use of such a handpiece dates back to around 7,000 BCE? Of course, this must have been a very different experience for patients. We don’t know how these early drills were operated, but they would have turned very slowly in a time before anaesthetic. It goes without saying, your patients are fortunate that the scariest thing about the modern drill is the sound it makes! It wasn’t until the late 18th century that a mechanical dental handpiece—powered by a hand crank and spinning at only 15 RPM (revolutions per minute)—emerged, and another hundred years before the first electric model appeared in 1875. This was a major innovation that kick-started a revolution (no pun intended) in the rapid advancement of the technology. By the time WWI began, electric handpieces reaching up to 3,000 RPM were in common use. By the fifties, air-driven models were being manufactured, and the rest is, as they say, history.
So how did an invention that began 9,000 years ago go on to differentiate modern dentistry from what came before? The increase in speed has been a major factor. While once upon a time your only choice was to bore slowly into a tooth, the innovations in electric and air power brought us the modern low-speed and high-speed handpiece. Despite its name, the low-speed model reaches speeds that would have made past dentists’ heads spin, usually around 30,000 RPM. The high-speed models outpace these by a significant margin, running between 200,000 and 400,000 RPM—the latter being nearly 7,000 revolutions each second! This kind of speed allows for a degree of precision work that was never possible before, in an implement that is safer than its predecessors. From polishing teeth to shaping crowns and veneers, the high-speed drill can do things that the dentists of yesteryear could never have dreamed of.
It’s come a long way to change the game the way it has, but rest assured, the dental handpiece has gone above and beyond to revolutionize the dental practice.