Aim: To investigate the mode of failure of a brand of nickel-titanium instruments separated during clinical use, by detailed examination of the fracture surface.
Methodology: A total of 122 ProTaper S1 instruments were discarded from an endodontic clinic at a stomatological school in China over a period of 17 months; 28 had fractured. These fractured instruments were ultrasonically cleaned, autoclaved and then examined under a scanning electron microscope. From the lateral view the fracture was classified into 'torsional' or 'flexural'. The specimens were then re-mounted and the presence of characteristics of shear failure and fatigue striations was recorded under high-power view of the fracture surface. The difference in the mean lengths of fractured segment between the shear and fatigue groups was compared using Student's t-test.
Results: Twenty-seven separated instruments were available for analysis. Under low-power magnification, only two fell into the category of 'torsional' failure when examined laterally; the others appeared to be 'flexural'. Close examination of the fracture surface revealed the presence of fatigue striations in 18 specimens. Nine instruments (including the two putative 'torsional' failures above) fell into the shear fracture group, in which fatigue striations were absent or characteristics of shear failure of the material were found. The mean length of fractured segments resulting from fatigue failure (4.3+/-1.9 mm) was significantly greater than that for shear failure (2.5+/-0.8 mm) (P<0.001, two-sample t-test).
Conclusions: Examination of the fracture surface at high magnification is essential to reveal features that may indicate the possible origin of cracks and the mode of material failure. Macroscopic or lateral examination of separated instruments would fail to reveal the true mechanism of failure. Fatigue seems to be an important reason for the separation of rotary instruments during clinical use.