Sedation Dentistry: Can You Really Relax in the Dentist’s Chair?

Does the thought of having your teeth cleaned make your entire body tense with fear? 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 depends on the severity of the fear.

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 enough to respond to simple verbal commands such as the request to turn one’s head a certain direction or to open a little wider.

The levels of sedation used include:

  • Minimal sedation — you are awake but relaxed.
  • Moderate sedation (formerly called “conscious sedation”) — you may slur your words when speaking and not remember much of the procedure.
  • Deep sedation — you are on the edge of consciousness but can still be awakened.
  • General anesthesia — you are completely unconscious.

What Types of Sedation Do You Offer?

The following types of sedation are offered to our patients:

  • Inhaled minimal sedation. You breathe nitrous oxide — otherwise known as “laughing gas” — combined with oxygen through a mask that’s placed over your nose. The gas helps you relax. Our doctors can control the amount of sedation you receive, and the gas tends to wear off quickly. This is the only form of sedation where you may be able to drive yourself home after the procedure.
  • Oral sedation. Depending on the total dose given, oral sedation can range from minimal to moderate. For minimal sedation, you take a pill. Typically, the pill is Halcion, which is a member of the same drug family as Valium, and it’s usually taken about an hour before the procedure. The pill will make you drowsy, although you’ll still be awake. A larger dose may be given to produce moderate sedation. This is the type of anesthesia most commonly associated with sedation dentistry. Some people become groggy enough from moderate oral sedation to actually fall asleep during the procedure. They usually can, though, be awakened with a gentle nudge
  • IV moderate sedation. You receive the sedative drug through a vein, so it goes to work more quickly. Because of its rapid effects many patients prefer this option. This method also allows Dr. Archibald to continually adjust the level of sedation, making your sleep dentistry experience more customized to your personal needs.

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?

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:

  • have a low pain threshold or very sensitive teeth
  • have difficulty getting numb
  • can’t sit still in the dentist’s chair
  • have a bad gag reflex
  • need a large amount of dental work completed

Sometimes, children are given sedation if they are terrified of going to the dentist or refuse to cooperate during the visit. Nitrous oxide is a very safe and effective aid for children who are nervous about their treatment. A smaller percentage of pediatric patients need more sedation than nitrous oxide gas alone can provide. In these cases we may refer your child to be seen by a dentist specializing in pediatric sedation.

Can Any Dentist Perform Sedation?

Most dentists can administer nitrous oxide. However, an increasing number of patients require deeper sedation than nitrous alone can deliver. Only a small percentage of dentists in Virginia have completed the extensive training and are permitted to provide these deeper levels of sedation. Dr. Archibald is one of these highly trained dentists, who can not only perform the dentistry you need, from the simplest filling to the complexities of dental implants or oral surgery, all while keeping you safe and sleepy.

How Safe Is Sedation Dentistry?

There is always a risk in getting anesthesia. It is usually safe, though, when given by an experienced dentist who monitors your vital signs closely and is trained and experienced in keeping you safe and comfortable. However, certain people, such as those who are obese or who have obstructive sleep apnea, should talk to their physician before having sedation. That’s because they are more likely to develop complications from the anesthesia. Before the day of your appointment, Doctor Archibald will review with you your medical history and determine if you are a good candidate for sedation dentistry.