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What Happens During A Deep Dental Cleaning?

Keeping up with dental visits isn’t a top priority for many people. In 2019, only 64.9% of Americans said they had undergone a dental exam or cleaning in the past 12 months. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic caused some patients to postpone appointments out of fear of contracting the virus.

If you’re heading back to the dentist after a while, you may be wondering if a regular cleaning will get the job done or if you could use a deep cleaning. 

Ultimately, your dentist can suggest the best type of cleaning for your needs, but it’s helpful to understand the key differences between a regular cleaning and a deep cleaning. 

What’s a deep cleaning vs. a regular cleaning?

A regular dental cleaning removes calculus — or tartar — that forms on the teeth, says Dr. Greg Grillo, a dentist and spokesperson for Express Dentist. Dental hygienists can remove bacterial plaque that brushing and flossing alone can’t remove. The difference between a regular cleaning and a deep cleaning is whether the procedure extends beyond the gum line, Grillo says.

“If the calculus is at the gum line or above, this service is considered a regular cleaning,” Grillo says. If tartar removal below the gum line is necessary, you’ll likely need a deep cleaning.

A deep cleaning usually includes more intensive procedures, like scaling or root planning. Learn more about these techniques below. 

When do you need a deep cleaning?

If your dental hygienist or dentist finds that deep pockets have formed between your teeth and gums due to inflammation or swelling caused by plaque buildup, they will likely recommend a deep cleaning. Deep pockets can be a sign of gum disease, which starts with gingivitis — the mildest form of gum disease — and can evolve into periodontitis, which is more severe.

If your health care provider suspects you may have gingivitis, they may recommend a deep cleaning. Otherwise, it can usually be addressed through a regular cleaning, brushing and flossing.

Periodontitis generally requires deep cleaning. If you’re experiencing this, the dental hygienist will typically “scale” your gums, which means removing plaque and tarter from the deep spaces between the teeth and gums. They might also conduct “root planing” which is a procedure that smooths down any rough surfaces on the teeth near where the roots meet the gums. 

If your dentist recommends a deep cleaning, take heed: When deposits form on the root surfaces of the teeth, “the bacteria produce toxins and cause inflammation in the gums, and this condition may lead to bone loss,” Grillo says. 

Do deep cleanings take longer?

While a regular cleaning takes place during a routine dental visit every six months, deep cleanings can require several appointments. A scaling and root planing appointment may last for around two hours, according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Hygienists often deep clean one side of the mouth at one appointment, then the other at a subsequent appointment one or two weeks later.

Do deep cleanings hurt more than regular cleanings?

It’s not unusual to experience more pain and sensitivity after a deep cleaning than you would after a regular cleaning. The discomfort could last a few days, and it might require an over-the-counter pain reliever.

Some patients experience soreness, sensitivity or small amounts of gum bleeding after a deep cleaning.

Does a deep cleaning require any anesthesia?

Deep cleanings often call for local anesthetic, Grillo says. Deep cleaning isn’t a surgical procedure, so the anesthesia is only used on the gums and teeth while patients are awake. 

Are deep cleanings covered by insurance?

The answer depends on your insurance plan. While many dental plans cover at least 50% of scaling and root planing, others do not. Always check with your insurance provider before your appointment to verify coverage for your procedure. You can also ask your dentist’s office if they offer payment plans, a sliding scale or subsidization programs.

Are routine deep cleanings recommended?

The American Dental Association recommends regular teeth cleanings. During your regular cleaning and exam, your hygienist and dentist can determine if a deep cleaning, or a course of deep cleanings, could benefit your oral health. 

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