Tooth Inlay Vs. Filling – What’s The Difference?

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Inlay vs. Filling

If you have a decayed tooth, first the cavity should be removed and the space filled with special materials. When the cavity is extensive and some part of the tooth structure still remains undamaged, an inlay is a good alternative to a filling. Generally, a dental inlay is the best option for back teeth which are decayed and require more than a simple and quick filling but less than a dental crown.

Dental Filling

This is a treatment option for small to medium size tooth cavities. The procedure involves removing the decayed portion of the tooth and filling the space with material. The dental filling is also used to repair cracked or broken teeth, or teeth which are worn down.

For a dental filling procedure, the dentist first applies local anaesthesia to the area around the tooth. Then, using a drill, laser or an air abrasion instrument, they’ll remove the decayed portion. The choice of instrument depends on different factors such as dentist training, plus the place and extent of the decay. Then the dentist will prepare and clean the space for filling when they can ensure that all decay has been removed. After that, they’ll fill the space with the filling material and then polish the final restoration for comfort and aesthetics.

There are different filling materials such as gold, silver amalgam, porcelain, tooth-coloured (white), composite resin fillings, and plastic.

Dental Inlay

On the other hand, this is a treatment option for large cavities of back teeth (molars) where the direct filling is not strong enough. A dental inlay is a good alternative for filling when some part of the tooth is left undamaged. The inlay is applied in two appointments. During the first session, your doctor removes the cavity and cleans your tooth. When your dentist prepares your tooth, they take an impression of the tooth and send it to the dental lab.

In the second appointment, your custom-made inlay will be placed and cemented in place. Your dentist will check to make sure that it fits in place and you are comfortable with your inlay.

The Difference Between Inlays and Fillings

In theory, these two can often be used interchangeably, but inlays are typically reserved for much larger cavities. They both involve removing the existing cavity with a drill and filling that empty space, but how that space is filled is where they primarily differ. With a filling, an amalgam or composite material is used to fill the space, and it’s a much quicker process, involving only a single visit.

With an inlay, the space is filled with a single, solid piece that is usually fabricated in a lab and they are typically made out of a material like gold or ceramic. The inlay must be made precisely to the shape and size of the empty space, otherwise food and bacteria will enter the space, resulting in further decay. The upside to an inlay is that they do not contract to the same degree as a filling after being placed, so there is less chance of the restoration failing for that reason, or creating a gap between the filling and the surrounding tooth structure. Inlays also create a tougher and theoretically more durable surface for use when chewing, and as such, an inlay should be more reliable long term, although the data on that is mixed and inconclusive.

Last updated on February 29, 2024

Dr. Deepak Aulak

Dr. Deepak Aulak is a London-based dental practitioner with a special interest in cosmetic dentistry. Having graduated from King's College London in Dentistry, Dr. Aulak was decorated with over a dozen awards and scholarships along the way, which notably include the Jelf Medal, Malleson Prize for research and GKT Hospital's Full Shields.


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