DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — A routine dental procedure suddenly led to a rare problem when a patient accidentally inhaled a dental drill bit. That patient ended up at Duke hospital where experts realized getting it out of his lung would be no easy task.

A bit for a dentist’s drill is small and sharp. Most people don’t want them anywhere near their teeth, much less inside a lung, but that’s exactly where one recently ended up.

“The dental drill bit had fallen and they couldn’t find it,” explained Dr. Momen Wahidi, an interventional pulmonologist at Duke. “They sent [the patient] to seek medical attention; they got a chest x-ray, and they found it.”

Wahidi has removed more items from people’s airways than you might expect, everything from part of a plastic utensil, to a thumbtack, but he said this case was particularly difficult. “It was a sharp object,” he noted, “but the most challenging part, it was very, very deep in the lung and we thought it might require surgery to remove part of his lung.”

To preserve the patient’s lung, Dr. Wahidi went in with a long thin tube called a bronchoscope and used technology to help him locate the drill bit.

“I told him, ‘I’m not 100 percent sure I can take it but will give it our best shot,'” he recalled. “It took 10-15 attempts to finally be able to grab it with forceps and pull it very gently all the way out.”

This isn’t the first time this has happened; an Illinois man found himself in a similar situation last month, but dentists say it is very unusual.

Orthodontist Laura Jacox said studies show, “About .0041 percent of all dental visits are associated with this type of event.” She explained there are safeguards in place.

“The drill heads have a locking mechanism onto the drill bit itself, and we’re also using high-speed suction so that if there was some item or foreign body, it would get sucked up,” she said.

Dentists and orthodontists are taught to send a patient to the ER if they think they’ve inhaled anything.
In this case, Dr. Wahidi said the patient was grateful his lung was saved and he didn’t need surgery. 

“It was a happy ending,” said Wahidi.