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A retrospective look at the dental drill

by anonymous

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Perhaps the most ubiquitous device in a dentist’s office is the dental handpiece, and which is colloquially referred to as a dental drill. It is the device responsible for producing the shrill sound commonly associated with the dentist’s office. Many people dread visiting the dentist because of the fear associated with the dental handpiece; most of the procedures involving this device are relatively painless though thanks to advances in modern medicine. Those who lived long before us were not as lucky with regards to these procedures considering that drilling was often necessary.


The dental drill has come a long way. There is evidence that dental drills were in use as far back as the Neolithic age. Human remains found in Neolithic graves in Pakistan have shown that drilling was conducted as a dental procedure although it is hard to tell how effective it was. Centuries later, the Mayans invented a rudimentary drill made of jade. It was shaped as a long rod with a sharpened tip and was operated by twirling the handle between the palms. Mayans probably used these drills for ritual purposes whereby they created holes in the teeth into which jewels were then inserted.

The first modern drills appeared in the 1700s. A book published in 1746 by Fauchard, a pioneering dentist, describes a dental drill made from a metal rod and operated by means of a bow. The first mechanical drill was invented in 1778. It was operated by hand and consisted of a mechanical gear that powered the drill bit. Improvements followed with addition of a foot pedal that freed the operator’s hands. In 1870, Morison patented the treadle engine, and which was the most sophisticated foot-operated drill of the time. The first electric-powered dental handpiece was patented in 1893 by Doriot and an electric current was used to power the drill.

Most of the ancient drills were very slow and tedious to operate. Dental procedures therefore took much longer and were probably very painful prior to the discovery and use of anesthetics. The earliest anesthetics used in dental surgery were nitrous oxide (also called laughing gas), ether, and later chloroform.

Today’s dental handpiece is a vast improvement of the models from the ancient days. These handpieces can operate at speeds of up to 300,000 rotations per minute and this serves to make dental procedures faster and more precise and also less uncomfortable for the patient. A dental handpiece is used to prepare the teeth for root canal procedures as well as for the removal of plaques and tartar from the teeth. Modern handpieces are made in different designs and are mush easier to operate as compared to the earlier versions.


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