When nerves about upcoming appointments feel overwhelming, sedation can help anxious patients grin and bear dental visits with ease.
For lots of folks, the thought of a visit to the dentist evokes a grimace rather than a smile. About 1 in 5 patients, or 19%, become anxious at the thought of dental work—so much so that many miss appointments, according to a study in the Journal of Dental Hygiene.
In fact, when it comes to common fears, dental phobia is second only to fear of snakes. And when patients with dental anxiety do brave a visit the dentist, it’s often because small problems that went untreated have become big problems.
Dental sedation can reduce the nerves and fear some patients feel at the prospect of getting a needle or hearing a drill.
“Some people have been avoiding dental work for quite some time and only make an appointment when something really hurts,” says Bruce Fay, D.D.S., founder of New Concept Dental in North Wilmington. “When they learn that they have several options for sedation, many of them express an incredible sense of relief.”
Dental anxiety is a very real condition that can produce sweaty palms, racing heartbeat and even fainting. There are various medications that produce a calming effect so patients can more easily tolerate care.
Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, dates back to 1844 when Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, used it to anesthetize oral surgery patients.
“It creates a euphoric effect and helps patients to relax,” Fay says.
In Delaware, dentists who offer sedation must complete advanced training. Fay has been providing various forms of sedation since 1997, in cases that range from patients who can’t tolerate cleanings due to overactive gag reflexes to individuals with special needs such as severe autism.
“They want to get as much done in a single visit as they can,” Fay explains. “Sedation lessens the awareness of the passage of time.…It’s also the most cost-effective for the patient, plus the most efficient use of their time because they don’t have to come back for multiple appointments.”
Some anxious patients opt for oral medication in liquid form taken the night before an appointment to calm their nerves. At the office, another dose is administered, lasting one to two hours. “Some people fall asleep and even snore,” Fay says.
He’s found the biggest benefit of sedation is that anxious patients who need dental care no longer avoid treatment, including preventive visits.
“There’s a very high level of patient satisfaction with these types of sedations because it turns extensive dental treatment into a nonevent,” he says. “It goes from something the patient views as scary into something that is not a big deal.”
Nitrous oxide wears off quickly, so patients typically don’t need someone to drive them home, says Glen Goleburn, D.M.D., of Westown Dental in Middletown. Westown is one of six practices in the Sleepy Tooth Group, whose offices offer dental sedation services in all three Delaware counties.
“But if you have moderate sedation or IV sedation, patients must have someone to drive them home,” he says.
Insurance typically pays for nitrous oxide, but coverage varies for other types of sedation.
Nervous about dental care? Try these calming tips.
These three practices are recommended by the American Dental Association:
Create a Mental Distraction.
While you’re in the dental chair, pop in your earbuds and listen to music, squeeze a stress ball or imagine you are enjoying yourself in a remote location. “Distraction is very effective in helping patients deal with anxiety,” says Glen Goleburn, D.M.D., of Westown Dental.
Talk About It.
Let your dental care providers know you are anxious and work out a signal you can use if you need to take a break. Ask any questions you have about the procedure.
Practice Mindfulness. Focus on Your Breathing.
Methodically relax the muscles in your body, from head to toe.