The Canary System - An Early Warning System to Identify Decay

May, 2013

Have you ever heard the idiom, "To act like a canary in a coal mine?" Canaries were used in coal mines to warn the miners of the presence of dangerous methane gas. Similarly, there is an exciting new dental technology, The Canary System (TCS), which targets the detection and prevention of tooth decay. Just like the little yellow birds, this low-power laser light technology serves as an "early warning system" to identify decay.

But there is more. First, let me give some background information. Dental caries (decay) as I have discussed in my book, is ultimately a systemic disease. When a person's system is vulnerable to decay, the bacteria in the plaque (that sticky substance you can feel on your teeth) feeds on carbohydrates and creates an acid environment. The acid diffuses into the enamel, dentin, and cementum (the covering on the root surface). The acid starts to dissolve the minerals in the crystal structure of the tooth. If this demineralization is not halted or reversed, the tooth will ultimately end up with a cavity.

Before one can see the demineralization of a tooth on an X-ray, there has to be approximately 50% loss of the tooth's minerals. By then, there is usually frank decay, and a filling is needed. TCS will reveal this demineralization much, much earlier than a traditional X-ray. Why is this so important?

When the demineralization is detected at an early stage, there are steps that can be taken to try to re-mineralize the tooth. Changes in diet, better home care, use of homeopathic tissue salts, supplementation, and special re-mineralization pastes can be used.

Following these approaches to re-mineralization, TCS can be used to evaluate whether or not the treatment is improving the de-mineralized areas.

TCS can also be used to detect decay around the margins of a restoration (filling). X-rays cannot do this. TCS can also detect decay on the chewing surface, the root surface and the side surfaces of the teeth. Another extremely important and exciting benefit of using TCS is that it can even find decay between the teeth! Up to now, we relied almost solely on X-rays for this.

TCS is also able to probe to a depth of 5 mm, with very specific depth readings, and, if there is in fact decay, we have a clear idea of how extensive it might be. This new tool does not totally replace X-rays, but it helps reduce the number of them needed.

In our office, we try to not take any X-rays on children. By looking for shadowing between the teeth or trans-illuminating the teeth with a bright light, caries can often be observed. However, this method is not foolproof. Decay can be missed and the demineralization stage will not be visible. Now, we can "see" without exposing children to X-rays.

Another advantage of TCS is that it can "see" through sealants; thus we can tell if there is decay underneath them. I find that often sealants leak or dentists unknowingly placed sealants over decay. Decay may be undetected under the sealants until it has progressed to a point where there is pain or where the caries can be seen on an X-ray.

Sometimes a suspicious looking area on the side of the tooth feels hard to a dental explorer, leading us to believe that there is no decay, while in fact demineralization and decay may be occurring below the surface.

Again, TCS will be able to let us "see" below the surface.

How does The Canary System work?

The Canary uses a low-power pulsating laser light to scan the teeth and detect tiny lesions in the teeth without exposing the patient to radiation. Readings on each tooth indicate whether there is demineralization or decay present. If there is decay, the reading approximates the degree of the severity. With demineralization readings we can institute remineralization treatment (as discussed above) and periodically take new readings to see if remineralization is indeed occurring. The TCS technology is pain-free, safe and non-invasive.

I hope that I have been able to convey why I am so excited about this new revolutionary instrument. In fact, it is so new (it was just approved by the FDA) that I am among the first dozen dentists in the entire country to have The Canary System, and I am the only one in New England to have one!