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How to prolong the life of intraoral digital sensors

One of the many advances made in modern dentistry is digital technology to take dental x-rays. The many advantages of digital x-rays include:

  • Ninety percent less radiation dose than E-speed x-ray film.
  • The ability to improve the image quality after taking the x-ray.
  • Immediate viewing of a radiograph.
  • Elimination of hazardous chemicals for x-ray processing.
  • Digital storage.
  • Higher quality dental images.

Dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and patients benefit from the use of digital dental radiography. Once an office gets past the initial learning curve and the considerable initial investment, it enjoys the efficiency and other advantages of moving to digital x-rays. The one disadvantage talked about most is the cost to get started with this technology. Yet, over time digital radiography can save money for the practice. 

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Saving money, however, depends largely on prolonging the life of the costly digital sensors. Learning the best practices to keep from replacing sensors frequently helps keep office overhead lower, which is essential to profitability and long-term practice success. This makes it important to train clinical staff in how to use digital sensors to acquire quality images and how to care for them and prolong their lives.

How long do intraoral sensors last?

This is similar to asking how long computers or cell phones last. You probably have had one of these tech items last longer than you expected. Likewise, you may have experienced disappointment when a computer stopped working shortly after the warranty expired. The frustration is that it seems so random.

The same is true of intraoral sensors. Some owners claim to get more than ten years of use from a sensor, while others experience sensor failure within two years. These sensors are unpredictable, but you can generally expect a lifespan of about five years.

The top reasons intraoral sensors stop working

  • Sensor cable failure. The cable contains several wires. The number and gauge of each wire depend on the manufacturer. Cables with fewer wires and a larger gauge are more durable but still have their breaking point. The cable gets bent every time a sensor gets used in a dental office. The wires eventually split and the sensor fails.

Another point of failure is where the cable meets the sensor housing. This area gets stressed every day by tugging, bending, and twisting until the connection eventually fails. 

  • Sensor housing failure. Biting on the sensor can damage its internal components. This happens most frequently when taking occlusal radiographs on children. Dropping a sensor on the floor can also crack and do irreparable damage to the sensor. If you notice a large dark spot on the radiograph, it was probably damaged when dropped.

How to store digital sensors

Safe storage is crucial to extending the life of digital sensors. Here are some storage tips:

  • Do not store with other items.
  • Do make sure the last few inches of the cord toward the sensor remain as straight as possible.
  • Do not store the sensor in direct sunlight.
  • Do store and transport a sensor in a small plastic basket that allows the cable to remain loosely coiled and not stressed.
  • Do not place a loose sensor in a drawer with other items.
  • Some wall-mounted holders safely store sensors. These should be properly spaced from one another, properly cradle the sensor, and allow the cable to remain uncoiled and protected.
  • Store the sensor when not in use. Keeping them plugged in makes them susceptible to any electrical interruptions.

How to clean and disinfect intraoral digital sensors

Digital radiography presents no small challenge when it comes to infection control. The American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control had to modify the infection control guidelines for dental radiography in 1986 to accommodate digital radiography. Hardware manufacturers’ requests for alternative infection control techniques that would not harm intraoral sensors necessitated this change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed enormous pressure on the dental profession and has resulted in significant changes in dental practices. The improvements made in infection control techniques help protect patients, dental staff, and dentists from the time a patient arrives until the time they depart the office. 

However, one weak link in this chain is when a dental assistant, hygienist, or dentist takes a digital x-ray. The challenge at this point is preventing the sensor from contamination. This depends on the integrity of the barrier and meticulous handling by the dental professional.

Manufacturers and researchers are sure to improve infection control procedures in the future. For the present, it is important to consult the manufacturer’s directions on the best practices for caring for your sensors. Here are some general guidelines to protect them and prolong their usefulness. 

  • Always handle the sensors with protective disposable gloves.
  • Always cover the sensor with a protective barrier. The barrier should also cover a portion of the cable near the sensor.
  • You cannot autoclave most sensors. Should the sensor become contaminated, consult the manufacturer’s recommendation for disinfection. The Centers for Disease Control recommends disinfecting with an EPA-approved hospital disinfectant. The chosen disinfectant should have intermediate-level (tuberculocidal claim) activity.
  • After using a sensor on a patient, be careful to remove and discard contaminated gloves during the sensor's cleaning.
  • Remove any chemical build-up from the sensor by wiping with a sterile sponge soaked with deionized water. Use a dry sterile sponge to wipe the moisture from the sensor.

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How to care for the sensor cables

Everyone in the office taking x-rays should understand that the sensor cable is as important as the sensor. Proper care of the cable is essential to prolonging the life of a sensor. An easy way to protect the cable is to use a USB extension cable. This helps prevent undue wear and damage to the sensor’s USB plug. A damaged sensor USB usually calls for replacing the sensor. 

Other ways to protect the cable include:

  • Do not allow patients to bite the sensor cable.
  • Do not store a sensor by hanging it by the cable.
  • Do not bend or crimp the cable when taking an x-ray.
  • Always uncoil a cable gently.
  • Do not use an instrument such as a hemostat to hold the cable.

The use of digital technology continues to improve the delivery of quality dental care for the modern dental office. Digital radiography is an area that has changed and will continue to change dental imaging. Prolonging the life of digital sensors can significantly offset the expense of this new technology.

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