Can That Dental Procedure Wait?

Technically, the recession is over. But dentists say that many people are still holding off on dental spending -- either by not going to the dentist at all or putting off the more expensive treatments. Even insurance holders (50 percent of Americans) typically pay more than half of the dental charges for anything other than cleanings and checkups, according to the latest data from Dental Market Research. That means many procedures are still expensive: A dental crown, for instance, generally costs patients approximately $450 out of pocket, even after a 50-percent reimbursement from their insurance carrier.

“Financially, it’s a hard world these days,” says Dr. Shehzad Sheikh, founder and director of Dominion Dental Care in Sterling, Va. “It’s not that people don’t want to get dental work done; it’s just that a little chip on a tooth that’s asymptomatic is a low priority. But it’s a mistake to defer the procedures you really need, because the problem could get worse and more painful -- and end up requiring more extensive and expensive treatment.” Here is a guide to help you figure out what can wait and what can’t.

A Filling (for a chipped filling or tooth)
Can it wait?
Maybe
“If a filling has a chip in it but you don’t have a cavity, or if you have a chipped tooth without any symptoms, you might be able to wait a while for a new filling -- but only your dentist can tell for sure,” says Sheikh. Keep in mind that with a chipped tooth, bacteria are more likely to get stuck in the tooth’s crevice, which can lead to decay.

Regular Cleanings
Can it wait?
No
“You don’t want to miss those twice-a-year hygiene appointments, because small problems could get worse,” says Sheikh. “If your dentist catches something early, it can be a quick and easy fix.” Also keep in mind that fluoride treatments, which aren’t always covered by insurance, are worth the money because they help re-mineralize the teeth and protect them from decay.

Cosmetic Work
Can it wait?
Yes
If you want to bleach your teeth or get veneers to improve your smile, those procedures can wait because they’re not a necessity. Plus, they won’t make a difference to your long-term oral health.

Deep Cleanings
Can it wait?
Maybe
“Sometimes you absolutely have to have scaling and root-cleaning done,” says Sheikh. But in some instances, you might be able to defer the procedure (which can cost more than $1,000 for the entire mouth) if you have regular cleanings every three months instead of every six. “That way, you may be able to get some semblance of control over the gum tissue,” says Sheikh.

A Root Canal
Can it wait?
No
“For a root canal, there aren’t any options: If you don’t do it now, you’ll end up losing the tooth. And if there’s infection, it could spread to other parts of your body,” explains Sheikh.

A Crown for a Serious Chip or Cavity
Can it wait?
No
“The longer you wait, the more prone you are to getting bacteria stuck around the tooth,” which can accelerate the rate of decay, Sheikh warns. In addition, if you need a crown to relieve pain (from a nerve that’s affected, for example), the pain could get worse and you could end up needing a root canal.

Ultimately, you’ll need to see your dentist to determine what can wait and what can’t. “If you come in for cleanings and X-rays, we can get a more realistic picture of what’s going on and can assess which procedures can wait,” says Sheikh. Ultimately, it’s a judgment call better made with your dentist’s advice.

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