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Sleep Dentistry: A Way to Ease Dental Phobia

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Sedation in dentistry — sometimes referred to as sleep dentistry — helps thousands of people receive oral care that they may otherwise avoid due to fear and anxiety. Learn how sedation in dentistry can make a healthy smile possible for even the most anxious patient.

Living With Dental Phobia

It's important to remember one key fact: It's okay to be afraid of the dentist. In fact, an article in the Journal of Dental Hygiene notes that 50 to 80 percent of adults in the U.S. have some degree of dental anxiety. According to the Cleveland Clinic, dental phobias often arise from fear of pain or from a bad prior dental experience. You may experience sleeplessness before a procedure, nervousness in the dental office or even an inability to attend your scheduled appointment.

Unfortunately, many anxious patients avoid dental care at all costs, which allows dental problems to worsen and only necessitates more intensive treatment later on. Telling your dentist about your anxiety and discussing options for treatment, such as sleep dentistry, can help you receive the oral care you need for a lifelong healthy smile. Dentists are trained in relaxation techniques to help make your visit as comfortable as possible — and when those aren't enough, dentists also have an arsenal of medical interventions, including sedation, to improve your experience.

What Is Sleep Dentistry?

The term "sleep dentistry" is somewhat of a misnomer, because you're not actually being put to sleep or rendered unconscious in the dental chair. This only happens under general anesthesia in either a hospital or outpatient surgical setting.

Rather, this treatment approach is more appropriately described as sedation dentistry, and it describes the use of medications to help patients with dental phobia relax during various kinds of dental treatment. A review in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry notes that it can also be useful for patients with severe anxiety, unsure of what will happen during their dental treatment, lack of trust and a significant gag reflex.

While you most likely won't need to undergo sedation for a simple cleaning and checkup, dentists use several different forms of sedation for more involved procedures, according to the American Dental Association:

  • Inhaled sedation, which uses nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. It can reduce your anxiety during dental care and provide a feeling of calm.
  • Oral sedation, which involves taking a pill to reduce your anxiety.
  • Intravenous sedation, during which patients receive medication via an injection.
  • General anesthesia, which temporarily renders you unconscious. Dentists turn to this method if they require deeper sedation to complete a procedure safely.

Risk Factors for Sedation

As with any medical intervention, there are risks involved in sleep dentistry — most of which involve airway management. As described in an article in the journal Gastrointestinal Endoscopy Clinics of North America, individuals with obesity or sleep apnea may face greater complications with regard to breathing while under the influence of sedation medications.

Before recommending sedation, your dentist will first determine if you meet the American Society of Anesthesiologists' standards. Sedation candidates must be of good mental and physical health or have only mild systemic disease, as the Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry review notes. Then, the dentist will recommend the appropriate method of sedation and the best way to manage the patient's airway.

Other Methods of Managing Dental Phobia

Dentists can combine sedation techniques with behavioral management, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to allow for the greatest success and a worry-free dental visit. According to the Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry review, psychological relaxation techniques may help patients maintain motivation and comfort in the dental office in the long term. It's important that you continue working with your dentist and other healthcare providers to manage your anxiety both with and without medication.

Talk to Your Dentist Today

Sedation dentistry can help you overcome your dental fear and receive the treatment you need to achieve a healthy smile. Your dental provider is trained in various techniques and will guide you in the right direction. Make it a point to discuss any dental anxiety with your dentist at your next appointment, and together, you can work toward making your dental visits a more comfortable and enjoyable experience.


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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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