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Comfortably Numb: Sedatives and Anesthesia Used at the Dentist’s Office



If you want to have healthy teeth and gums, you need to visit the dentist twice a year. For some people, this is no big deal. But for others, it is terrifying. The thought of the pain of a dental procedure, even from a simple cleaning, is enough to keep some away for years. Fortunately, putting your teeth and your health at risk is not necessary, even if the word “dentist” fills you with fear. Sedative and anesthetic options can make any trip to the dentist bearable.

Only use what is necessary

Dentists prefer to only use the minimum amount of sedation necessary for a procedure. They do this for several reasons, including cost and safety. Sedation and heavy anesthesia become increasingly expensive as they increase in strength. Part of this is due to the need for constant monitoring. Heavy sedation always carries a risk of complications, and dentists prefer not to take unnecessary risks.

However, everyone needs to visit the dentist. And much as they may not like it, most people need a dental procedure – a filling or wisdom teeth extraction – that will involve some pain. Dentists would rather you take care of your teeth, even if it requires anesthesia or sedation.

Types of anesthesia and sedation

Topical anesthesia

The most basic form of dental anesthesia, the topical option usually comes in the form of a cream that the dentist will rub on your gums to deaden sensation. It usually only penetrates a short distance, but this is enough to lessen the pain of injections. If you need anesthesia, such as when you are getting a cavity filled, the topical will go on before the dentist injects you with local anesthesia.

Local anesthesia

This is the preferred form of anesthesia in the dentist’s office. By using a needle, the dentist can apply the deadening agent, such as Novocain, directly to a place in your mouth. There is no reason to deaden everything if you are only getting one filling or one tooth removed.

One injection, or set of injections, is usually sufficient for an entire visit. In most minor dental procedures, you will get a combination of topical and local anesthetic.

Nitrous oxide sedation

This type of sedation is what many think of when they imagine the dentist’s office. The dentist will deliver a combination of nitrous oxide and oxygen to you via a facemask, and this is often enough to calm most patients. Usually, you will still be aware of what is going on, just in a more relaxed state.

Intravenous sedation

This method is used quite often when patients are going through a long procedure, or if they have extreme anxiety about their procedure. The dentist delivers sedation through a needle inserted in the arm. It comes on quite quickly, and you may or may not be aware during the procedure.

IV sedation requires monitoring of your vital signs to ensure your safety. This is part of what makes it more expensive than local anesthesia.

Oral sedation

When a patient does require sedation, many dentists now prefer to deliver it orally. The dentist will prescribe a sedative, such as Xanax, and the patient will take it at a certain time before the procedure. The level of sedation is safe, predictable, and effective.

Health effects

All of the sedatives typically used in the dentist’s office are administered safely and at minimum dosages. Dentists that use sedatives go through medical training in their application, and understand the minimum amount of the drug that you will need for your procedure.

The less medication used, and the less monitoring it requires, the cheaper the procedure. However, if it is a matter of choosing between going to the dentist or not, opting for sedation is a wise decision. The health of your teeth, and your entire body, is worth the cost.