Understanding Dental Instruments

When a patient walks into a dental office, he or she likely experiences a sensory overload. The smells and sounds alone are enough to distract anyone. For those with dental anxiety, understand the purpose and use of some dental instruments may help alleviate some stress. Consider these four common instruments.

Slow-Speed Handpieces

When a hygienist polishes a patient’s teeth, he or she likely uses a slow-speed handpiece. This device has a removable toothbrush attachment. The toothbrush has a rubber cup that holds a special kind of toothpaste called prophy paste. The handpiece runs off compressed air controlled by dental handpiece gaskets, so it does tend to make a loud noise.

High-Speed Handpieces

A high-speed handpiece is what many patients refer to as “the drill.” Dentists use this type of instrument to remove decay from teeth. This handpiece can also be used to shape teeth in preparation for a crown. There are special burs that the dentist uses to shape the enamel, and these burs fit inside the high-speed handpiece.


Patients may wonder why a hygienist scrapes on his or her teeth. Dental scalers, referred to as “picks” by many patients, are used to remove hard calculus deposits from the teeth. Calculus, also known as tartar, is a yellowish substance that can harbor bacteria and plaque and thus needs to be removed regularly.

Ultrasonic Instruments

For patients who have a lot of calculus buildup, a hygienist may use an ultrasonic scaler. This instrument has the same job as a regular dental scaler, but it uses a different mechanism. The tip of this instrument sprays water and vibrates, helping to dislodge the tartar more efficiently.

While the dental office can be a scary place for some, it is not as much so when one understands what is going on. For patients with dental anxiety, talking to a dentist or hygienist about concerns can help alleviate some fear.

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