Some people have no more anxiety about a visit to the dental office than they do for a hair styling appointment; for others, seeing the dentist is not quite so stress-free. Studies show that about three-quarters of us are at least a little nervous about dental visits, while 10-15 percent of people have a great deal of fear—enough to prevent them from getting dental treatment at all. That’s truly unfortunate, because without routine professional care, they stand a good chance of having more severe (and more expensive) dental problems… or even losing their teeth!
If the thought of seeing the dentist makes you tense or worried, there’s good news: Modern dentistry has a wide range of methods to help you relax and to ease your way though treatment. In fact, one of the most effective isn’t really “modern” at all: It was first used for tooth extractions in the mid-1800’s. This anxiety-relieving medication is correctly referred to by its chemical name, nitrous oxide, but is sometimes still called by its outdated nickname, “laughing gas.”
Nitrous oxide is a sweet-smelling, colorless gas that works to relieve anxiety and promote a feeling of well-being during dental treatment. It is usually mixed with oxygen and administered via a nasal mask — so to take it, all you have to do is breathe. One of its advantages is that the infusion of gas can be easily increased or decreased, so its effect can be precisely controlled during treatment. When the procedure is over, the flow of nitrous oxide is reduced to zero, and its effects wear off within minutes.
Nitrous oxide is often used in a type of anesthesia called conscious sedation. When this is induced, you will remain awake, able to breathe normally and to respond to verbal cues – but you won’t feel any anxiety about your treatment, and you may have little or no memory of it afterward. Because it’s administered by breathing, it’s especially helpful for those who have a fear of needles.
In some procedures, nitrous oxide may be used in combination with another local anesthetic to ensure that you don’t feel any discomfort. And because it’s a potent medication, your dentist will take a complete medical history, including all prescription and over-the-counter drugs you are taking, before administering it. Yet through decades of use, nitrous oxide has proven to be safe and effective.
Nitrous oxide is just one among many methods for helping you overcome the apprehension and anxiety that is sometimes associated with dental treatment. Other techniques include practicing stress-relieving exercises; having candid discussions about your fears with your dental care team; taking a more gradual pace with your dental work; and using other medications or types of sedation. If you think one or more of these methods could benefit you, don’t hesitate to ask your dentist about them. But above all, remember that there’s no reason to let fear of the dentist get the upper hand.