Comfortably Numb: Sedation Dentistry and the Root Canal Procedure

Going to the dentist – whether for a significant procedure or just a standard tooth cleaning – makes many people nervous. This dental anxiety can be attributed to a number of reasons such as the sound the drill makes, the fear of pain, or even just laying back for long periods of time with someone’s hands in your mouth (a modest form of claustrophobia).

No matter the reason, if visiting the dentist shakes a person up and fills them with trepidation, there is a solution—sedation dentistry.

Sedation Dentistry and the Root Canal Procedure

The root canal procedure is often the brunt of many bad jokes. The thought of it can even evoke a feeling or sense of panic. I say that it’s like relationships, “You always hear about the bad ones—not the good ones.” Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.

What if you could be ‘comfortably numb’ throughout the entire thing? In fact, what if you could maybe not even remember the root canal ever happened?

Sedation dentistry – sometimes called relaxation dentistry – is a somewhat holistic form of dentistry that not only seeks to provide routine and acute dental care and treatment, but also aims to address dental pain or dental discomfort at the same time.

Here are two of the most common types of sedation used in dental procedures:

Sedation Dentistry and Nitrous Oxide for General Dental Anxiety

Nitrous oxide is effective for persons with mild dental anxiety. It is a gas that is sweet-smelling and colorless / odorless. It is mixed with Oxygen and then breathed in by the patient—most often through a mask. The patient remains completely conscious and has total control over all bodily functions. However, they are mildly sedated.

There are many pros of nitrous oxide for sedation dentistry. First, it’s completely safe for the heart and lungs. It’s also easily flushed from the body due to the addition of oxygen in the inhalation mixture. Additionally, it works fast – in as little as 2-3 minutes – and the depth of sedation can be adjusted as well.

The only real con to sedation dentistry is sometimes, the patient experiences residual amnesia after the procedure. However, this is not a major side effect and there is no ‘hangover’ effect with nitrous oxide when used for sedation dentistry.

Anxiety Medications Used for Sedation Dentistry

On occasion, if the patient is significantly anxious, anxiety medications may be prescribed for before and during the dental procedure. In this type of sedation, valium or Xanax are sometimes given the night before the procedure (such as the root canal procedure). Then, about an hour before the visit a Halcion is taken. Halcion is in the same family as Valium, but stronger.

With this form of sedation dentistry, the patient is slightly more “out” than with nitrous oxide. Because of this, the patient must also have someone accompany them to the appointment since they take the medicine before arriving and will still be groggy in most cases, when the procedure(s) is complete.

With either form, the primary benefit is patients don’t fear the procedure or panic about the thought of (or during) any uncomfortable dental work or that which makes them nervous, anxious, or in pain. If that means more people get the dental treatment and care they need – and the dentist is properly trained in sedation dentistry – this could definitely be considered a “win” in a dentist’s ability to provide caring patient care.

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