While going to the dentist isn't anyone's favorite activity, some people experience higher than normal levels of anxiety when it comes to having their teeth cleaned and checked. Putting off regular dentist visits due to fear, anxiety or pain-related issues that make it difficult for you to sit in a dentist's chair or keep your mouth open can lead to serious problems.
If you're unable to handle routine dental work or you need a more extensive procedure done, sedation dentistry might be the right choice for you. There are several different options for sedation, ranging from mild to general anesthesia to help you relax and minimize discomfort and pain.
Inhaled nitrous oxide or "laughing gas" is one of the most common forms of mild sedation for dental work. Your dentist will place a mask over your nose that allows you to breathe in nitrous oxide and oxygen. The gas helps you relax, but you'll be awake and will still be able to talk. It also wears off very quickly. One of the reasons this method is preferred for patients who don't need stronger sedation is because most patients are able to drive themselves home after their appointments.
Some patients take a pill before dental work to help relax them. Most of the time, the medications are similar to Valium, meaning they'll make you relaxed and drowsy, but you'll most likely be able to stay awake during your procedure. Larger doses can be given to bigger people or if stronger sedation is needed. You'll need to take the pill at least an hour before your dentist appointment in most cases, so you'll need to plan ahead if you're using this method and have a driver who can get you to and from your dentist's office.
Moderate intravenous sedation is offered by some dentists that specialize in sedation dentistry. Administering sedatives through an IV line allows for stronger effects and quicker onset than taking a pill. Your dentist or anesthesiologist will monitor you continuously throughout your procedure and adjust your medication dosage as needed. You may be able to stay awake through moderate IV sedation, but you may not remember everything that happens while you're under sedation and you may not be able to think or speak clearly.
General anesthesia is administered through an IV line as well, but you'll be completely unconscious during your procedure. An anesthesiologist will monitor you continuously and will reverse the drugs' effects with other medications when it's time for you to wake up. You'll need to stay for awhile after you wake up so you can be monitored for any adverse effects from the anesthesia, and you won't be able to drive yourself home. This type of sedation is typically reserved for very long procedures or dental surgery.
If you've never been sedated for dental work before, talk to your dentist about which, if any, sedation services are available to you. If your regular general dentist doesn't offer sedation as an option, check with other dentists nearby. They'll often advertise themselves as pain-free or "catering to cowards" if they offer sedation.