Sedation dentistry is a wonderful option for patients who are afraid of the dentist or get anxious during certain dental procedures. But what is it exactly? And should you be nervous?

The answer is, not at all! Sedation dentistry involves the use of medications to help you relax and be more comfortable. There are several options available and they are all painless or virtually so.

Laughing Gas (Nitrous Oxide)

Nitrous oxide is a colorless, odorless gas that has patients feeling more relaxed and at ease within about 2 to 3 minutes. It was first discovered in the late 1700s, but was not used in dentistry until the mid-1800s.

Nitrous oxide is mixed with oxygen at varying levels depending on the concentration required for the patient and the length of administration of the gas. It is completely painless and very safe. Your dentist will place a small mask over your nose to administer the gas, and you will remain fully conscious throughout the procedure although usually feel very much at ease.

After the procedure is over, the gas is completely eliminated by the body within 3 to 5 minutes. So you can safely drive yourself home or return immediately to work.

So why the funny nickname? Nitrous oxide can sometimes give people the giggles as they begin to relax, hence the nickname “laughing gas.” The benefit to this type of sedation is that if you don’t like it in the first 5 minutes, the dentist can remove the mask and try something else.

Oral Sedation (Taking a Pill)

Oral sedation involves swallowing a small pill before your appointment to help you relax. The dentist will prescribe a single pill that you can pick up from the pharmacy, and will instruct you to take it 30 to 60 minutes before your visit (depending on the drug prescribed).

Because these medications can cause sleepiness and impair your coordination, you must have someone available to drive you to and from your appointment. Otherwise they are safe for most people and have very few contraindications.

The most commonly prescribed oral sedation drugs are benzodiazepines such as Valium, Ativan, and Versed. Sometimes a sleeping pill like Halcion may be prescribed instead. Your dentist will help determine the best medication for you.

Generally these drugs will make you feel less anxious and/or sleepy, but the effects last only for a few hours. The drug prescribed will depend on how long your appointment is expected to last – some drugs last longer than others and are more appropriate for longer procedures.

Intravenous Sedation (Using an IV)

IV sedation is an option for extremely nervous patients or for those undergoing extensive dental procedures. This form of conscious sedation involves an IV being inserted into the hand or arm.

Most patients begin to feel drowsy and relaxed very quickly, but they remain fully awake during the procedure. You may be able to respond to verbal cues while under sedation as well, so IV sedation is not the same as general anesthesia.

The benefits of IV sedation are that many patients have no memory at all of the procedure, and it is safe and very effective for most people. You can go home within 1 to 2 hours after the procedure is finished, although you will need someone else to drive and you may have some lingering drowsiness for the remainder of the day.

Written by: Dr. Yahya Mansour