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The global market for dental inlays and onlays is worth $3 billion. Experts project this value will increase by 11% each year between now and 2030 due to a growing awareness of these oral appliances.

At the same time, you are not alone if you’re wondering, “What is a dental inlay?” Dental inlays and onlays are alternatives to traditional fillings that work better for more extensive tooth decay or damage.

Are you a good candidate for dental inlays or another restorative dentistry option? We explore the answer to this question and more in our guide, so keep reading to find out.

What Is a Dental Inlay?

A dental inlay is a pre-fabricated type of filling used to restore tooth decay or damage.

Other types of fillings used for tooth decay and/or trauma include dental onlays and traditional fillings. Compared to these alternatives, inlays are less invasive and more suitable for particular patients.

Dentists fit inlays into the grooves of the damaged or decayed tooth. But first, they must clear away the tooth decay to ensure the bacterial infection does not progress to the cusps (the outer edges of the teeth) or tooth root.

Inlays consist of tooth-colored materials like composite resin, porcelain, or ceramic. Gold inlays are also available and highly durable. However, they are much less common due to the cost and visibility.

Ceramic is the rarest option due to the high cost, though this material is almost as durable as gold. Most people choose resin or porcelain inlays, with the latter being most popular for its durability.

Who Needs a Dental Inlay?

People with tooth decay or chipped teeth need dental inlays. However, the decay or damage should not be minor. It should be significant enough to require a completely new layer of artificial enamel.

If the decay is less extensive, a traditional filling is a better and more affordable option. If the decay is more extensive, a dentist may recommend an onlay instead.

Sometimes, a dental crown may be the better solution for extensive tooth damage that inlays and onlays can’t correct, though this option is more expensive. Crowns cover the entirety of the tooth’s surface.

Inlays are ideal when the decay or damage is too large for a filling but do not affect the tooth’s cusps. Decay or damage impacting the cusps will require a dental onlay.

What Is Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay is more commonly known as dental caries or cavities and impacts the surface of the tooth, also known as the enamel. Cavities happen when bad oral bacteria multiply due to poor dental care habits.

Bacteria feed on sugar and other food leftovers on and between your teeth, creating acids. These acids can erode your tooth enamel when not cleared away with brushing and flossing.

Over time, erosion of the enamel leads to cavities. Cavities are small holes in the teeth. Without treatment with fillings, inlays, or onlays, the decay can worsen, causing tooth loss, gum infections, and other complications.

Symptoms of Tooth Decay

The worse cavities get, the more symptoms you will experience. Look out for the following signs that may be symptomatic of worsening tooth decay:

  • Tooth pain
  • Tooth sensitivity to hot, cold, and sweet foods
  • White or brown stains on teeth
  • Visible holes in teeth
  • Abscesses

Cavities are easy to treat in their early stages. But if the decay spreads, your dentist may have to resort to more extreme measures like root canals or a tooth extraction and dental implant. These treatments are painful and can be costly.

Dental Inlays vs. Fillings

Fillings are the most basic form of treatment for dental caries. They can also be used to correct minor chips and cracks after injuries. Compared to inlays, fillings can be more affordable, depending on the material you choose.

Another significant difference between inlays and fillings is time. It is much faster to get a filling than an inlay.

With a filling, dentists must first clear away the decayed tooth enamel. After that, they can immediately load the filling. The entire process can be completed in 20 minutes to an hour per tooth.

Dental inlays take much longer to fit. The first step is to clear away the decay before making a mold of your tooth and inserting a temporary inlay. Then, the dentist must send the mold away to have the inlay fabricated.

Patients must return for a second appointment to have the inlay fitted. The entire process can take a few weeks to up to a month to complete.

Despite their differences, inlays and fillings share some things in common. For example, both consist of similar materials, with composite resins and ceramic being the most common.

Dental Inlays vs. Onlays

Dental inlays and onlays are far more similar. Both of these devices are pre-fabricated and made from similar materials. They can also help with more extensive tooth decay or damage than fillings.

However, dentists reserve onlays for the most significant levels of tooth decay or damage. As mentioned, this solution is best for teeth that are so decayed or damaged that the outer tooth edges are affected.

Onlays are often the last resort before taking more extreme measures. For instance, say the decay impacts the tooth root. In that case, a root canal may be required.

The procedure for an onlay is virtually identical to getting an inlay. The dentist will first clear away the decay before taking a mold of the tooth and inserting a temporary onlay.

Patients must wait for the onlay to be fabricated before returning to the dentist’s office. The process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a month or longer.

Restore Your Oral Health in Columbia, SC

So, what is a dental inlay? Dental inlays are oral appliances used to treat moderate tooth decay or damage. Most commonly, people with extensive cavities that do not affect the edges of the teeth can benefit from inlays.

If you need dental inlays, onlays, or fillings, you need restorative dentistry. Lockhart Dental offers full-service restorative and cosmetic dentistry in Columbia, SC. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.