Background The treatment of deep dental decay has traditionally involved removal of all the soft demineralised dentine before a filling is placed. However this has been challenged in three groups of studies which involve sealing soft caries into the tooth. The three main groups either remove no caries and seal the decay into the tooth, remove minimal (ultraconservative) caries at the entrance to a cavity and seal the remaining caries in, or remove caries in stages over two visits some months apart to allow the pulp time to lay down reparative dentine (the stepwise excavation technique). Objectives To test the null hypothesis of no difference in the incidence of damage or disease of the nerve of the tooth (pulp), progression of decay and longevity of restorations irrespective of whether the removal of decay had been minimal (ultraconservative) or complete. Search strategy The Cochrane Oral Health Group Trials Register, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, PubMed and EMBASE databases were searched. The reference lists in relevant papers were checked. Selection criteria Randomised controlled trials and controlled clinical trials comparing minimal (ultraconservative) caries removal with complete caries removal in unrestored permanent and deciduous teeth. Data collection and analysis Outcome measures recorded were exposure of the nerve of the tooth (pulp) during caries removal, patient experience of symptoms of pulpal inflammation or necrosis, progression of caries under the filling, time until the filling was lost or replaced. Due to the heterogeneity of the included studies the overall estimate of effect was calculated using a random-effects model. Main results Four studies met the inclusion criteria; two stepwise excavation studies and two ultraconservative caries removal studies. Partial caries removal in symptomless, primary or permanent teeth reduces the risk of pulp exposure. We found no detriment to the patient in terms of pulpal symptoms in this procedure and no reported premature loss or deterioration of the restoration. Authors' conclusions The results of this systematic review reject the null hypothesis of no difference in the incidence of damage or disease of the nerve of the tooth (pulp) irrespective of whether the removal of decay had been minimal (ultraconservative) or complete and accepts the null hypothesis of no difference in the progression of decay and longevity of restorations. However, the number of included studies is small and differ considerably. Partial caries removal is therefore preferable to complete caries removal in the deep lesion, in order to reduce the risk of carious exposure. However, there is insufficient evidence to know whether it is necessary to re-enter and excavate further but studies that have not re-entered do not report adverse consequences.
This review is published as a Cochrane Review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 4. Cochrane Reviews are regularly updated as new evidence emerges and in response to comments and criticisms, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews should be consulted for the most recent version of the Review.