Would you rather endure the agony of a toothache than step foot in a dentist's office? You're not alone. A lot of people are so phobic about going to the dentist that they prefer not to have any treatment.
For people who avoid dentists like the plague, sedation dentistry may take away some of their anxiety. Sedation can be used for everything from invasive procedures to a simple tooth cleaning. How it's used
What Is Sedation Dentistry?
Sedation dentistry uses medication to help patients relax during dental procedures. It's sometimes referred to as "sleep dentistry," although that's not entirely accurate. Patients are usually awake with the exception of those who are under general anesthesia.
The levels of sedation used include:
What Types of Sedation Are Used in Dentistry?
The following types of sedation are used in dentistry:
Regardless of which type of sedation you receive, you'll also typically need a local anesthetic -- numbing medication at the site where the dentist is working in the mouth -- to relieve pain if the procedure causes any discomfort.
Who Can Have Sedation at the Dentist's?
Sedation is most appropriate for people with a real fear or anxiety that is preventing them from going to the dentist.
Sedation dentistry may also be appropriate for people who:
Sometimes, children are given sedation if they are terrified of going to the dentist or refuse to cooperate during the visit. Nitrous oxide tends to be safe in children, and just about any dentist can administer it. A smaller percentage of pediatric dentists are trained to give children oral sedation. Oral sedation can be safe when kept within the recommended dose for the child's age and weight.
These are not recommended for use instead of, but in addition to a caring dentist. Trust your gut instinct while figuring out which methods might work for you. Sedation is sometimes touted as “the solution for overcoming dental anxiety or phobia”, but in reality, many people don’t like the idea of sedation. Scores on dental anxiety tests bear little or no correlation to the need for (or desirability of) sedation.
“What’s the story with ‘sleep dentistry’? Are there certain procedures which would be too painful otherwise?”
As a rule of thumb, IV is for people who want to know nothing about the treatment and be as “out of it” as possible. The disadvantage is that they need escorted home and watched for at least the next 6 hrs. Nitrous Oxide is for people who are a bit nervous, it calms them down nicely and is a fairly effective painkiller. It’s fantastic for older children and properly done almost guarantees painless dentistry.
I sometimes combine nitrous with intravenous for proper needle phobics, for whom desensitization doesn’t work.
General Anesthesia is a last resort. There are many procedures that can’t be really be done under GA and there is always the risk of death. I always get a bit nervous before a GA clinic and I’ve been doing them for a long time now.”
Sedation can be useful if:
Sedation may not be a good option if:
Types of Dental Sedation
The 3 most common forms of sedation on offer are:
None of these involve “being put to sleep”, even though advertisements for “sleep dentistry” sometimes refer to oral or IV sedation. Being put to sleep is called general anesthesia, or GA for short.
“Sleep Dentistry” – Mixed Feelings
There can be a conflict between your dental fears, on the one hand, and your need for control on the other. If you choose sedation, this can pretty much eliminate your anxiety about discomfort from the dental procedures, if that’s what you’re afraid of. Or, if you’re afraid of a panic attack while sitting in the dentist’s chair, sedation might eliminate that fear, too. But if you worried about not being in control of proceedings, “sleep dentistry” may be a hindrance rather than a help. It may be worth discussing inhalation sedation (laughing gas) with your dentist if you don’t like the idea of loss of memory for the procedure, and if some sense of control is important to you.
Most people have some degree of ambivalence about being in control of, or aware during, a delicate or potentially painful situation, medical or dental. You and your dentist should discuss whether a treatment would be uncomfortable or distressing to you. It may be useful to talk to others who have experienced the treatment. For a few reasons you may want to have a friend or family member present during the procedure. This can ensure that your basic dignity and privacy are not compromised, if you are in any way worried about this. Also the dentist may relate useful information to them.
Some people feel empowered by using sedation, despite liking to be in control:
The case for sedation
The case for sedation can be summed up in one sentence: “If it helps, why not?”. If you’re going to have a treatment that will not be painful, but might be uncomfortable, why not have sedation as part of the course and forget that it ever happened?
The case against sedation
Other dentists argue that relying on sedation does not allow you to overcome your fears, for a number of reasons. In the case of IV sedation, because you will not remember the treatment, you cannot learn that dental treatment is nothing to fear. Oral sedation can have the same effect because benzodiazepines can impair memory and interfere with the acquisition of new information and laying down new memories. Sedation may also make you believe that the only reason why you’re able to cope with treatment is the sedation, and you may not attribute your success to yourself, but to the drugs used.
So what’s the verdict?
The argument against sedation does appear to have some validity, judging from anecdotal evidence from both dentists and patients (although there is no real consensus). This is not so much of a problem with laughing gas, because it doesn’t appear to affect memory in the same way as benzodiazepines (for example, people often recall warm fuzzy feelings or feeling amused, and these positive associations can help with overcoming fears). Also, both some dentists and some people with dental fears find that IV sedation does ease their fears long-term and that they were able to progress to having treatment without sedation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this may be more likely if sedation is “tapered off” during the treatment, so that anything which could potentially be unpleasant is done under heavier sedation first, and lighter sedation is used towards the end of the appointment.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to dental sedation. Many dentists quite happily offer both psychological methods and sedation side by side, and together with you figure out what suits you as an individual. Other dentists have a strong preference for one or the other. If that is the case, make sure that the dentist you choose shares your own preferences!
Some thoughts on sedation
There’s no doubt that sedation is a fantastic option for some people. Some dentists will opt for it for themselves when undergoing certain procedures (I’ve even heard of one who’ll have nitrous oxide for a simple cleaning!). But it’s not for everyone – and it shouldn’t be pushed on people.
Nowadays, you’ll come across quite a few websites which advertise themselves as “catering to the dental phobic” (or more condescendingly, “catering to cowards”). Or they’ll breathlessly announce “sleep dentistry” or “twilight dentistry” as the solution to all your problems… but with some of them, all they seem to offer, apart from being not particularly unfriendly, is sedation or even general anesthesia. There may be blanket statements along the lines of “if you are terrified of dentistry, sedation is THE answer”. Of course, there isn’t one answer that applies to everyone. And personally, I’d be quite wary of any place which advertises itself in that way. True enough, often the website design is left to a professional web design company, who simply inserts a standard piece of text. It’s even possible that the owner(s) of the practice/office are blissfully unaware of the marketing hype. I’m not saying that all dental offices which advertise themselves in this way are bad – there are some great ones around that receive excellent feedback.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the marketing hype for sedation is this: some people will agree to (or even request) sedation even though they’d prefer not to be sedated – because they worry that the dentist is going to be upset with them should they panic. They’re worried that they’ll inconvenience their dentist because s/he may have to stop what s/he’s doing, that their dentist will then get frustrated or angry with them, which in turn will cause them to react with more fear. This reasoning is usually based on the assumption that no dentist will want to deal with someone who’s “difficult” (i. e. someone who needs more assurance than the average patient).
If that is the way you feel, please don’t settle for a “put up and shut up” approach – instead, make an extra effort to find a patient and understanding dentist who has the ability to put you at ease, even if this means meeting more than one dentist (for a chat, initially) to see whom you feel comfortable with. Hey – you’re worth it !
It’s also true that depending on where you live, sedation may not be widely offered – and it’s more expensive. If you suffer with dental phobia, it can be very disconcerting, if not scary, to read statements along the lines of “the only way people like you can be treated is when you’re sedated”. Not true in most cases! So don’t have a nervous breakdown if you can’t avail of it – generally speaking, pain can be controlled extremely well with the use of local anesthetic, and anxiety can often be controlled using psychological methods. However, if you have an instinctive feeling that behavioral methods can’t help you, make sure you seek out a dentist who offers sedation.
Many dentists who offer sedation simply do so as an adjunct to empathetic treatment, to patients who desire to know as little as possible of the procedure or who want to get things fixed in the least amount of time possible. However, there are also some who may offer it because they don’t have the personality and/or skills needed to make frightened people feel at ease.
Malamed cites a classic study by Egbert et al (1963) illustrating the importance of human behavior in the control of anxiety. In this study, patients about to undergo surgery the next day were placed in one of three experimental groups. Participants in group 1 were visited the day before by the anesthesiologist who explained the upcoming events to them and answered any questions the patients had in order to allay their fears. Those in group 2 received a sedative one hour before the operation but no visit. Those in group three received both the visit and the pre-op sedative.
The results showed that patients in group 1 were alert upon arrival in the operating room but quite calm and didn’t appear to be apprehensive. Those in group 2, who had received a sedative only, were drowsy – but apprehensive. People in the third group were both drowsy and calm. This example demonstrates that using sedation instead of, rather than as an adjunct to, a doctor or dentist who will try and relieve anxiety just doesn’t do the trick.
Can Any Dentist Perform Sedation?
Most dentists can administer minimal sedation (such as nitrous oxide or pills). An increasing number of dentists can give moderate sedation. However, only a small percentage of dentists who have completed the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) program in deep sedation and general anesthesia can use these more complex techniques. These dentists are typically oral and maxillofacial surgeons and dentist anesthesiologists. Some dentists use a dentist anesthesiologist, who is specially trained to give all levels of sedation and anesthesia to both children and adults.
Each state's dental board carefully regulates the use of sedation techniques. Many states require dentists to hold permits in order to perform sedation
If you feel that the right dentist and psychological techniques alone won’t do the trick for you, have a look at the available pharmacological options for coping with dental anxiety.