Quest for Understanding

A brief history of the laser, which has revolutionized treatment in the medical sciences

By: Dr. James Duncan

Just over 100 years ago, Albert Einstein, with his great mathematical mind, postulated the process of stimulating portions of the electromagnetic field and producing amplified light. This was the beginning of light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, or the laser.

This may seem such a long time ago, but just 30-plus years prior to Einstein’s axiom, a fellow named Thomas Edison had invented the light bulb. After Einstein and a few other brilliant physicists figured out the math behind particle activity of the electromagnetic spectrum, the first lasers arrived in 1951.

Immediately, scientists in medicine, dentistry and other fields began playing with lasers to study their potential usefulness. Over the years, a multitude of lasers have been designed and tested for a wide variety of uses on the human body.

The first laser used clinically in dentistry was back in 1966, when it was tested on tooth structure enamel and dentin, the hard structures of the tooth. During the 1970s and ‘80s, ongoing research was conducted, and designs of many different lasers were used to perform a variety of different procedures mostly pertaining to oral surgery. During the research and development of lasers in the 1990s and 2000s, laser use broadened into using lasers in treatment ranging from gum disease to tooth whitening.

Fast-forward to today: Technology in lasers has helped revolutionize treatment in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and many other industries. It is the medium, or the material used inside the laser, that produces the different wavelengths. It is these differences in wavelengths that give each laser its unique capabilities and allow it to perform.

Treatments can include things like pain management of Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, discomfort after surgery and reduction of cold sores. And with a few adjustments to the laser’s settings, teeth can be whitened. Certain wavelengths allow the dentist to remove tooth decay and place fillings, and to treat gum disease and even biopsy tissue if needed. Yes, lasers can even be used during root canals to remove tissue within the tooth’s canals and aid in sterilization.

Lasers have also proven helpful when treating younger patients and some patients with dental anxieties. Know anyone who is tongue-tied or experiencing gingival recession (receding gum lines)? Both of these instances can sometimes be attributed to low or excessive frenum attachments (which cause the gums to pull away from the teeth or tie the tongue to the floor of our mouth). With a quick visit to the dentist and use of a dental laser, these attachments can be easily removed with little to no discomfort and with minimal healing time. In some instances, anesthesia can be reduced or completely eliminated for certain procedures. How fun is that?

So what about safety? Laser radiation is extremely safe. However, lasers are light producers, so safety precautions must consider the behaviors of light. Ever touch a light bulb after it has been on for a minute? Light can get quite warm, so heat is monitored continuously. Also, light can be damaging to the eyes, so specific protective eyewear is used to safeguard our delicate eyesight.

Only time will tell where technology and the continuing quest for understanding the science behind lasers and the human body will be in the years to come. We have only scratched the surface in laser technology over the last 100 years.

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