What Are Dental Inlays and Onlays?

While many people automatically think of tooth fillings or crowns put in place to deal with dental decay, modern dentistry offers many alternatives to these tried-and-true treatments, such as dental inlays and dental onlays.

In the past, dentists had two choices when it came to restoring decayed teeth — they could use a filling to patch small decayed areas, or they could use a crown to restore a tooth with a large fracture or deeper decay. Unfortunately, there were many “in-between” situations where a filling was not quite enough to restore a decayed area, and a crown was too intrusive for the amount of decayed area.

The answer? Dental inlays and dental onlays. These two options provide treatment to fill in areas that are too big to handle with a filling but not big enough to warrant the expense and dental reshaping required with a crown. An inlay can fill in hollows between the cusps of teeth where decay may have occurred, while an onlay can work for a larger area that can include the cusps without covering the entire tooth surface. Both perform the same function, but they are used in different areas of the tooth.

What Exactly Is a Dental Inlay?

A dental inlay is an excellent choice for a tooth that has suffered damage by tooth decay or an injury, but where a filling is not sufficient to provide structural support and integrity to the tooth for long-term restoration.

Whether the damage to the tooth has occurred through injury or decay, dental inlays are created by taking an impression or mold of the damaged tooth. This mold is sent to a laboratory, where an inlay is manufactured of either porcelain or composite material. Both of these materials are stronger and longer-lasting than traditional dental fillings, making inlays less expensive in the long term.

When your dentist takes the impression for the inlay mold, he or his assistant will try to match the color of your natural tooth as closely as they can so that your inlay, when placed, is not noticeable in your mouth.

So, Are Dental Inlays Better Than Fillings?

There are many things to consider when choosing the proper restoration for your damaged tooth. Because inlays can fill in a larger area of damage without further degradation of your tooth’s structure and they are long-lasting, they may be a better choice for certain kinds of decay. In fact, one of the drawbacks of amalgam fillings is that they typically react to temperature changes by expanding and contracting, a feature that can cause a filling — or even your tooth — to crack over time.

On the other hand, inlays fit exactly into the area left by the decay, strengthening the tooth up to 75% more than before the decay occurred. Plus, they can last up to 30 years before needing replacement.

However, a filling typically only requires a single appointment to complete, while an inlay will require two dental appointments — one to take the impression for the mold and then a follow-up visit to seat the inlay. This time commitment may be problematic for some patients, who may opt for the simpler one-visit commitment offered by fillings.

What is A Dental Onlay?

When the cusps of a tooth, along with the biting surface, have suffered damage by injury or decay, there might be too big of a decayed area to fill with a traditional amalgam filling. If there is not enough damage to require a crown, an onlay might be the right choice. An onlay can not only protect the decaying area but can increase the strength of the tooth.

When you decide to opt for an onlay, your dentist will prepare your tooth first by numbing your mouth with an anesthetic and then drilling out the area with the cavity. After cleaning the decayed area, they will place a temporary onlay so that they can take an impression of the entire tooth area. This impression is sent to a laboratory that will manufacture your permanent onlay. At a follow-up visit, your dentist will place the permanent onlay, made out of either porcelain or other durable composite materials, in the damaged area.

Because they perform in a similar way to a crown but cover less surface area of your tooth, dental onlays are sometimes referred to as partial crowns.

So, Are Dental Onlays Better Than Crowns?

Because a dental onlay can cover a larger area of your tooth than either fillings or inlays, they may seem very similar to dental crowns to the untrained eye. While there are some similar features between these two forms of restorations, they each serve different purposes.

For example, to seat a crown, your entire tooth must be reshaped, often significantly, which can result in a smaller surface area of a healthy tooth. The crown then covers the whole tooth, which is a much more aggressive treatment than an onlay. With onlays, more of the healthy tooth is maintained, but creating and seating an onlay requires much experience and knowledge from your dental professionals to get a perfect fit. Your dentist will know exactly which restoration treatment is right for the specific issues with your teeth.

Considering an Inlay or Onlay to Restore Your Teeth?

If you have areas of tooth decay, a loose filling, or a filling that must be replaced, you may want to consider using dental inlays or onlays to help keep your tooth — or teeth — strong. A visit with Dr. Omid and our friendly staff at Dentist of Cerritos can help you take charge of your oral health and determine if one of these treatments is right for you.

If you’re like many of our patients in Cerritos, life is busy. If you are concerned about the two visits required for inlays and onlays, don’t worry. Our office offers flexible appointments so you can get the benefit of state-of-the-art dental care for your entire family.

If you’re ready to discuss the many options available for alternatives to fillings and crowns, contact us at (562) 414-5064 and get your appointment scheduled at a time that is convenient for you!


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