We all know that dental treatment makes us healthier—but for some of us, that’s just not enough to get past the fear of getting a shot. It’s ironic when you think about it: The very reason shots of local anesthesia are given at the dental office is to numb the area being worked on and keep us more comfortable; yet it may cause anxiety. Fear of needles is a real phenomenon and many dentists are aware of this. Fortunately, there are things the dentist can do to make the procedure more comfortable. These include:
- Some people are most afraid of the first prick of the needle. That feeling can be eliminated with a topical anesthetic, which blocks pain sensations from your skin. It is usually applied to the gums with a cotton swab before the needle is inserted. If given enough time to work, today’s topical anesthetics can be very effective. Of course, sometimes it’s not the sensation but the very sight of the needle that makes you feel faint. In that case, you might want to consider nitrous oxide (laughing gas) or oral conscious sedation (sedative in pill form). Both of these are very low-risk forms of sedation where you remain fully conscious and in control.
- Believe it or not, it isn’t usually the needle prick that causes the most discomfort during a dental injection but an abrupt release of the anesthetic into the gums, which can create pressure and even tissue damage if done too quickly. Most dentists today understand that a slow pace is best for patient comfort. Again, this seems counterintuitive: Shouldn’t a shot be administered as quickly as possible so the patient can sooner breathe a sigh of relief when it’s done? Actually, no. A slower-paced injection does two things: it allows the dentist to release just a few drops of anesthesia at a time so that the numbing effect always precedes the needle; and it allows the liquid to disperse through the tissues without creating too much pressure. Setting the right pace is something an experienced, compassionate dentist can do by feel.
- Two technological innovations have come along recently to address this issue of injection comfort. One is the DentalVibe®, a small handheld device that looks like an electric toothbrush. The dentist holds it against your gums as the injection is given. The gentle vibrations it releases travel to your brain faster than the pain and overload your neurons so you don’t feel the injection. Another is the “anesthesia wand,” which is a computer-controlled injection device that doesn’t even look like a needle (though it does have a very small one). The wand is designed to eliminate “human error” (i.e., rushing through a shot) by ensuring a slow, steady pace. Some dentists and patients swear by these devices. However, it’s important to remember that a dentist who doesn’t own the latest gadgets can still give a pain-free shot. That’s where patience, compassion and experience come in.
There’s one more important step in making injections painless, and this one’s up to you: Tell your dentist how you feel. If you hide your fear of needles, you won’t get the help you need and deserve. A compassionate dentist should be willing to help alleviate your pain and anxiety in whatever way works best for you.