Though still viewed by the public as a tool chiefly used for prenatal care, ultrasound is spreading to every reach of medicine. Areas of the body once thought to be invisible to sonographers have become clear as day, thanks to the persistent work of clinicians who have developed new techniques and developers who have upgraded devices. The public may view it simply as a prerequisite for gender reveals, but sonographers know it can improve patient care, expedite diagnoses, and save lives.
Like a flashlight in a dark room, ultrasound reveals clues that weren’t visible before. Superman is known for his X-ray vision. With this power, he can see through walls to spot criminals on the other side. Ultrasound provides sonographers with the same ability. They can detect pathologies hidden by skin and bone, and they can do so without the risk of radiation.
In recent years, healthcare providers have become increasingly aware of the risks presented by repeated exposure to ionizing radiation from X-rays and computerized tomography (CT) scans. Though some argue that the risk is low enough not to worry, others point out that the risk is not zero and should therefore be avoided when possible.
It’s a popular conversation in medicine, and other practitioners have begun weighing the same options. In dentistry, most patients will undergo intraoral X-ray imaging as often as every six months. These scans, taken from the inside of the mouth, are a part of routine examinations to determine the health of teeth and gums. In these images, dentists can see the enamel, the dentin layer, and the pulp chamber where nerve tissue resides inside the tooth. They can identify tooth decay, examine emerging wisdom teeth, and inspect existing fillings or implants.
Unlike most medical X-rays, routine intraoral dental X-rays are preventative. Dentists’ aim is to spot weaknesses and advise management before the issue becomes more serious. Conducting these exams regularly allows them to compare teeth and gum status year over year and spot abnormalities as soon as possible.
What if imaging was viable without the repeated threat of radiation exposure? The journal Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology, and Oral Radiology published a study finding that “ultrasound has a promising future as a diagnostic imaging tool in all specialties in dentistry, for both hard and soft tissue detection.” It asserts that sonography has already gained traction in the following dental fields:
- Dental scanning
- Caries detection
- Dental fractures
- Soft tissue and periapical lesions
- Maxillofacial fractures
- Periodontal bony defects
- Gingival and muscle thickness
- Temporomandibular disorders
- Implant dentistry
Because it is inexpensive, noninvasive, and without the risk of radiation, many would like to see ultrasound used as often as possible. The imaging technology is still early in its dentistry career, but it has made promising steps forward. According to the study “Ultrasonics in Dentistry,” ultrasound “waves are particularly sensitive to tight cracks and interface conditions between layers—dental features often difficult to interpret from X-ray images.”
Exactly how far sonography will reach, no one can say for sure, but it is advancing far and wide. Especially with the rising popularity of point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS), the increasing ability to take it anywhere, and its ever-growing diagnostic and treatment opportunities, the public will soon stop seeing ultrasound only as a tool for prenatal care. They’ll begin to see it instead as the not-so-secret weapon of dentists and physicians to inspect, detect, and manage countless ailments of the mouth and body.
Ultrasound may never put X-ray out of business because each imaging option has its own strengths and weaknesses. But no one can deny the rising tide of ultrasound. The next round of comic book superheroes may even locate criminals with ultrasound vision.
Interested in learning more about this exciting superpower? Read how POCUS has merged medicine with science fiction and brought us into the Final Frontier.