What do dental handpieces, race cars, track athletes, and major league baseball pitchers have in common?
A need for speed.
And where there’s speed, there’s torque.
Like the athletes who drive fast cars, throw balls at jaw-dropping velocity, and run quicker than most ride bicycles, the mechanics of dental handpiece performance are deeply nuanced.
Also, like those athletes above, many factors go into optimizing speed and torque, two foundational factors driving dental handpiece performance.
Dental handpiece torque and dental handpiece speed must be balanced to ensure the best outcomes with cutting, polishing, and shaping. Moreover, patient risks and discomfort must be reduced as much as possible.
Advancements in related technology will continue driving dental handpiece performance and enhancing overall patient care.
Dental handpiece speed isn’t a cut-and-dry topic. We’ll examine the varying intricacies involved throughout this section.
Let’s continue with our sports analogy from our introduction. Not all pitches are fastballs. Not all races are 100-metre sprints. And not all dental handpiece procedures call for maximum velocity.
Several procedures (e.g., crown preparation or cutting through enamel) require high-speed handpieces.
Conversely, lower speeds are more suited to finishing and polishing.
Optimal dental handpiece performance isn’t about winning a race. It’s about applying the appropriate speeds to a given scenario.
Purchasing specific handpieces for a given purpose might not seem financially responsible or strategic.
Fortunately, modern technology has yielded handpieces with multiple speed settings. Thus, one handpiece can operate at varying speeds based on the procedure.
Practitioners can adjust accordingly to ensure effective, safe, and comfortable treatment to ensure lasting restorations. You’ll spend on one handpiece that does the job of several, serving your functional and budgetary needs.
Below, we’ll delve into the specifics of high speed and slow speed handpieces.
Cavity preparation, removing old/defective restorations, and eliminating hard tooth structure are the primary use cases for high speed handpieces.
These velocity-driven dental drills function at 400,000 RPM.
The smoothness of the cut without causing excessive pressure is a crucial benefit, preventing microfractures and other traumas in these scenarios.
Restorative work completion, endodontics procedures, polishing, and (sometimes) soft decay and caries removal are the primary use cases for slow-speed dental handpieces.
Reaching speeds of 40,000 RPM, low-speed handpieces can gently remove soft caries at between 5,000 RPM and 20,000 RPM. In these instances, the only thing removed is the tooth's diseased segment while ensuring that as much of the healthy structure as possible remains intact.
When placing restorations or fillings, smoothness and harmonizing with the occlusion (or bite) become a top priority. Lower speeds between 8,000 to 30,000 RPM help ensure polishing yields a smooth finish while avoiding damage.
Drill speed impacts heat production. More to the point, the faster the drill, the more heat it generates. Thus, high speed handpieces must be balanced with sufficient cooling methods (typically a water spray). Otherwise, the dental pulp could be subject to a thermal injury.
Now, let’s break down the varying components of dental handpiece torque and how it impacts performance.
We’ve talked about the close relationship between speed and torque.
In layperson’s terms, torque provides foundational support to help maintain the necessary speed for optimal functioning.
More specifically, torque involves rotational force. It relates to the drill’s ability to overcome resistance or how its strength correlates with its speed.
Hard tooth structures or restorations place resistance against dental handpieces as they drill. The drill bit will move at the desired rotational speed when there’s enough torque (or driving force).
Alternatively, insufficient torque will cause the drill to stall or stop altogether in the face of resistance. On the other end of the spectrum, excessive torque could cause tooth or surrounding structural damage due to a lack of control.
Adjustable torque is a feature found in many modern dental handpieces. The driving force can be dictated based on the procedure and patients’ needs, offering optimal flexibility while bolstering comfort and safety.
Speed–in and of itself–is unreliable.
Think about a speedy car like a Jaguar. Sure, it’s good for a thrill and can get from A to B in an instant, but these aren't reliable vehicles, and consumers don’t trust them.
A more apt analogy could be found on the football field. Someone who runs fast won’t necessarily thrive in this setting. Their speed alone can’t protect them from the resistance of equally quick but much stronger players trying to tackle them. Instead, a mixture of speed and driving force will win the day (and the big game).
The same notion applies to your dental handpiece. You could have a dental handpiece that moves faster than the speed of light without any meaningful resistance.
Yet, the moment you place it under load, it will become efficient, effective, and even stall if it lacks sufficient torque. The result will be extended procedure times and poor patient experiences riddled with discomfort. None of these are ideal outcomes for your practice.
Sufficient torque will ensure the handpiece performs at your desired speed, regardless of the load.
Combining speed with torque is the ideal mix, yielding reliability, consistency, and patients who trust your handiwork.
Torque shares a commonality with speed insofar as it must be tamed. You can’t allow torque to run rampant without control because it can injure soft tissues and damage tooth structure.
While the above outcomes of uncontrolled torque are damaging enough for your practice–given the reputational strife they can cause–there’s also the matter of tool breakage. Dental handpieces are long-term investments that offer reliable performance over many years. Paying for replacements before they’re necessary will chew into your bottom line.
Adjustability is closely related to versatility. Several modern dental handpieces have adjustable torque settings, allowing the user to optimize levels and performance for specific patients and procedures.
Such options can prove vital to your bottom line. Instead of investing in numerous handpieces with varying torques, you can choose one that fits many scenarios. As much as this equipment can help with your performance during procedures, it also makes strategic and financial sense.
If speed and torque are closely related, quality and reliability are symbiotic.
Many dental practitioners purchase subpar handpieces through no fault of their own. The market is littered with options, and it can be challenging to decipher the good from the bad.
When dentists end up with a subpar handpiece, they quickly discover the symbiotic relationship between quality and reliability.
For one, inferior drills typically don’t maintain a constant speed–a factor that grows more glaring under load (aka during tooth drilling procedures).
In the above instances, procedures become hampered by a lack of predictability. Unlike in a dramatic sporting event, unpredictability in a dental procedure is a bad thing. You want things to go as planned from beginning to end.
Also, procedures tend to last longer and lack efficiency due to poor-quality handpieces.
Handpieces without sufficient torque will stall or stop altogether once resistance comes into play. The results can be disastrous, such as improper or incomplete restorations or tooth structure removal.
Speed and torque settings typically don’t offer precise control when handpieces are hampered by low-quality construction. Pitfalls of this issue include inadequate preparation and excessive tooth structure removal.
Another issue with low-quality handpieces is overheating, which leads to patient discomfort. It also causes dental pulp damage, potentially leading to oral tissue burns.
Furthermore, frequently overheating handpieces don’t last long. Their lifespan reduces drastically because the internal components are subjected to excessive wear and tear.
We’d be remiss not to mention how low-quality handpieces often have imbalances, causing too much vibration. This issue hinders precision and can cause damage to the surrounding structures of the tooth (or the tooth itself).
Dental practitioners must then consider the damage subpar handpieces can have on themselves. This inferior equipment isn’t built with ergonomics in mind, causing hand fatigue over the long haul.
There’s then the noise factor. Poor quality handpieces make more noise generally, causing patient discomfort. It can even frighten patients in certain instances. This loudness can cause auditory problems for practitioners, too. Continued exposure without protection can cause long-term hearing damage.
Dental handpiece performance relies on two of the same traits as many types of athletic performance: speed and torque.
On the above note, you want to select your dental handpiece like a team recruits a star player. You want to find something that delivers an all-star performance day in and day out.
After all, you’re a highly skilled dental professional–as is the rest of your team. You owe it to yourself–and your practice–to match your skill level with high-quality equipment.
Matching your ability with a top-tier dental handpiece will increase patient trust and your practice’s reputation. And while you aren’t playing a sport, a thriving business sounds like a victory to us.