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Dental Sedation

Updated on July 10, 2009

More than 30% of people report experiencing anxiety or fear when going in for an appointment with the dentist. While many may feel ashamed about this and want to hide or try to ignore the anxiety they feel, it is actually nothing out of the ordinary. In this hub I will explain why people experience dental anxiety, and talk about the primary manner in which the problem is being addressed: the use of dental sedation.

There are several kinds of dental sedation. Some are very traditional and you are likely to have experienced them yourself. Others involve newer medications and techniques to help the highly anxious patient tolerate dental visits more easily.

Why are we afraid of the dentist?

A common misconception is that only people who tend to be anxious in general experience dental anxiety. Many also believe that fear of the dentist relates back to childhood experiences with dentistry, or that people who fear the dentist as adults must have always felt that way.

In fact, neither of these are true. Dental anxiety can happen to anyone, and often develops gradually over time. The reason for this is that a dental visit is the perfect storm for the development of behavioral conditioning. You visit the dentist's office and place yourself in a vulnerable position, only to be poked at, prodded, and occasionally caused severe pain. Because the stimulus is intermittent, you learn to always be on guard for it. Therefore, you develop a severe feeling of anxiety surrounding the dentist visit even if you know you are only going in for a simple cleaning. Even though your conscious mind is aware of this, you body and your unconscious processes are ready to be on guard for an attack.

I wanna be sedated

Dentists have always had to manage anxiety in their patients, as well as pain. The earliest form of modern dental sedation was probably the administration of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. This is something you have probably experienced. The dentist hooks you up to the mask which feeds you both NO2 and oxygen, and you very rapidly begin to feel relaxed, sleepy, and sometimes even amused. The nitrous oxide provides some pain relief in addition to the sedative properties, and so patients feel comfortable and at ease while enduring what would otherwise be highly unpleasant dental experiences.

Another way that you can experience what is called "conscious sedation dentistry" or "partial dental sedation" is to ask the doctor to prescribe you a sedative medication before your appointment. Dentists routinely prescribe benzodiazapene medications such as valium, which are mild sedatives and which very nicely relieve mild anxiety. If you take this type of medication by precription a half hour before your appointment, you will likely feel very calm and at ease. This is because the medication pre-empts your body's natural fight-or-flight response. This also relieves some pain associated with the procedures because it relaxes your muscles, and muscle tension tends to increase the subjective experience of pain.

Photo by Tifotter -
Photo by Tifotter -

Full IV dental sedation

In just the last decade, IV sedation dentistry has become popular as new and safer sedatives have become available. This is the real deal, and like any full sedation has risks. Some people don't wake up. The good news is that you are not very likely to be one of them. Your dentist can help you to determine if you are a good candidate for this type of treatment.

IV dental sedation is mostly for major procedures such as wisdom tooth extractions or dental implants, but is also used for very severe cases of dental anxiety. As we have seen, dental anxiety can snowball because new discomfort reinforces the existing dental phobia, causing a constant increase in your automatic response to the dentist every single time you go. Over the years, this can become intense! So now more dentists are offering the option to put you out completely during your procedure, so that you don't have to deal with this fear and anxiety and you are also easier for them to manage. Some dental practices are actually specializing in sedation dentistry and will even sedate patients for relatively minor procedures.

If you can avoid this extreme measure, it is probably a good idea to because it is such a drastic approach. But it is also a godsend for the millions of people who simply are no longer able to tolerate their dental visit. Sedation dentistry offers a chance to take good care of your dental needs while also avoiding the unpleasantness of ongoing and increasing anxiety and discomfort.


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      willpower 8 years ago

      Sedation is the only way I'll go to the dentist these days. I spent an entire summer as a kid having teeth replaced after an accident I wish it would have been around back then