A dental inlay is a form of indirect dental restoration. Unlike a filling, which is built up directly in the mouth, an indirect restoration such as an inlay is fashioned outside the mouth to fit the shape and size of a large cavity exactly. In the past, inlays were made of gold, making them extremely durable but also very expensive. Today, inlays can be made of tooth-colored porcelain or composite resin. This makes them more affordable but still more costly than a direct filling.
Inlays can only be used in the molars, which are the back teeth. The molars have multiple points that stick up on top called cusps. If a molar has a large cavity or extensive damage from an injury, but the cusps are still intact, it may be possible to restore the tooth with an inlay. Unlike an onlay, which is another type of indirect dental restoration, an inlay does not extend over the cusps of the tooth. Rather, it fits down into the grooves of the tooth due to pre-molding.
An inlay is indicated when another type of restorative technique, such as a filling or a crown, would unsustainably weaken the tooth due to the amount of damaged material that would have to be removed. However, dentists do not recommend an inlay as the first line of treatment due to the costs involved and the necessity for multiple visits with a temporary filling in between.
The process requires at least two appointments. During the first visit, the dentist drills the tooth to remove the decayed or damaged portion. The dentist then makes an impression of the remaining hole in the tooth and places a temporary filling to protect it while the inlay is crafted. After the first visit, the dentist will send the impression to the lab, which will then create the inlay out of the desired material, whether composite resin, porcelain, or gold.
Fabrication of the inlay in the lab can take up to two to three weeks. The temporary filling protects the tooth during this time. When the inlay is ready, the dentist has the patient return for a second appointment. At this visit, the temporary filling is removed and the new dental inlay is placed and cemented into the tooth's cavity.
A dental inlay does not weaken the remaining tooth to the extent that a filling does. It can last for more than 20 years. It repairs the chewing surface of the tooth while remaining almost invisible, especially when made of a material the same color as the existing tooth.
Besides the dental inlay, there are other indirect restoration options available. These include the onlay and the overlay. The difference involves the extent to which they cover the cusps of the tooth. The amount of damage or decay indicates which type is required for a specific tooth.
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