Dental Inlay vs Onlay: What’s the Difference?


Published in Health Articles

Your dentist pauses and starts giving one tooth a closer look. You get that sinking feeling – you know what this means. Your mind starts racing – is it a regular filling, or will I need a root canal?

Practically all of us have been there. In fact, 90% of American adults have at least one cavity!

But what if your dentist tells you that you need a dental inlay or onlay? What are they talking about?

We’re here to help. Let us guide you through the question of dental inlay vs onlay, and find out when you might need them.

The Purpose of Dental Inlays and Onlays

Dentists use dental inlays and onlays when neither a filling nor a crown is the right treatment.

Fillings are used to fill small cavities. Crowns are used when the decay goes deeper into the tooth, and more of the tooth has to be removed.

Dental inlays and onlays are used when the cavity is too big for a filling, but not begin enough for a crown. Crowns usually involved removing most of the tooth – including healthy parts of the tooth.

Inlays and onlays are the perfect ‘in-between’ treatment.

What Is a Dental Inlay?

To understand how dental inlays work, we need to think about the shape of the tooth. The crown (top) of the tooth has two parts – the hollow and the cusps.

The hollow is the depression in the middle of the tooth – the biting surface of the tooth. The cusps are parts that rise up from the hollow.

A dental inlay is designed to fill cavities in the hollow of the tooth. They restore the biting surface of the tooth. They are usually stronger and last longer than regular fillings.

Dental inlays are therefore much less visible than crowns or dental onlays – more on that later.

The Dental Inlay Process

Dental inlays are custom-made for your teeth. After your dentist removes the decayed part of your tooth, he or she will take an impression and send it to the lab. They will make a bespoke inlay that fits your tooth perfectly.

Your dentist will fit a temporary inlay to protect your tooth until the custom inlay is ready.

Inlays are usually made in porcelain or composite resin. Both options are strong and match the natural color of your tooth. This makes the final restoration almost invisible.

What Is a Dental Onlay?

You will need a dental onlay if the cusp of your tooth is also damaged.

Head to your family dental clinic and ask the dentist to assess the level of damage to your tooth. He or she may feel that a regular composite filling would not be strong enough to support the tooth. They may also be concerned that the tooth could break in the future.

The Dental Onlay Process

An onlay is larger than an inlay, as it covers both the biting part and cusp of the tooth. The dentist will follow the same procedure as for the dental inlay.

They will remove the decayed part of the tooth, and take an impression. They will then fit a temporary onlay. The lab will fabricate the custom onlay and you will need to come back to the dentist’s office to have it fitted.

Should I Get a Dental Inlay or Onlay?

If you have a significant amount of decay in your tooth, it’s definitely good to consider a dental inlay or onlay.

They do cost more than regular fillings. However, they are also stronger and more durable. With good care, they can last for up to 30 years.

They also allow you to retain more of your natural tooth than a crown would. That said, there are pros and cons to each treatment.

Pros and Cons of a Dental Inlay

Dental inlays are a great choice if only the biting surface of your tooth is damaged.

Firstly, they are made from strong materials, such as dental porcelain or composite resin. Porcelain is the stronger of the two materials and is more natural-looking.

Many people appreciate the natural appearance of the final restoration. Also, fillings may only last for up to 15 years. With good care, inlays can last for decades.

The main con of a dental inlay is that it costs more than a filling. Tooth-colored, composite fillings usually cost around $250 or less. Metal fillings are even cheaper.

However, you may pay closer to $1000 for a dental inlay. Every case is unique, so talk to your dentist about costs before making a final decision.

The other disadvantage is that you will have to come for a second visit to the dentist’s office. A standard filling can usually be completed in a single visit.

Pros and Cons of a Dental Onlay

Like dental inlays, onlays are also a strong and durable solution. They look great and can last for up to 30 years.

A further advantage is that they can help to reduce tooth sensitivity. This is true when the damage has occurred close to the nerve. They provide a high level of protection from heat and cold, making them a comfortable choice.

The con? They don’t come cheap. Dental onlays usually cover a greater area than dental inlays, so may cost slightly more.

You can expect to pay up to $1,500 for a dental onlay. But it’s good to speak to your dentist about options available before concluding that this is too expensive for you.

The Verdict: Dental Inlay vs Onlay

If you’ve got cavities, it’s good to know that there is an alternative to traditional fillings and crowns.

The question of dental inlay vs onlay is one that your dentist can answer for you. If the damage is only on the biting surface, a dental inlay will be all you need. If it has extended to the cusps, choose a dental onlay.

Whichever you choose, you’ll get a restoration that is almost seamless. One that blends in with your natural teeth, and restores the strength of the tooth.

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