Generally, there are four types of dental sedation: oral sedation, intravenous (IV) sedation, nitrous oxide sedation, and general anesthesia. Which of these sedation methods is used during a particular procedure depends on a patient’s unique situation. Many times, dental sedation is used to calm a patient who has anxiety about needles or a dental procedure. By using the various sedation methods, a dentist can help a patient relax so he doesn’t mind receiving a local anesthetic or remember the procedure. Most dental sedation methods do not put a patient to sleep, but rather help them to relax before and during the procedure.
Perhaps one of the most well-known dental sedation techniques is nitrous oxide (N2O), also known as laughing gas. When administered, a patient will breathe a mix of nitrous oxide and oxygen through a nose mask. The gas takes effect within minutes and sends the patient into a euphoric and relaxed, but conscious, state. The gas may not reduce pain, however, and so a local anesthetic may have to be administered before the procedure takes place. Often, the gas’s effect will dissipate quickly and will not prevent a person from leaving the dental office under his own power.
An IV sedative may also be used to prepare an anxious patient for a dental procedure. In this sedation method, the sedative is introduced directly into a patient’s vein. Again, the person is conscious, but a deep sedation method may be used in which a patient is close to unconsciousness. In some cases, a patient under deep sedation may not be able to breathe and so a dentist must be constantly aware. IV sedatives also do not prevent a patient from feeling pain, and a local anesthetic may need to be used for that purpose.
Another dental sedation method is the use of oral sedatives. In this case, a patient is given medication to take at a certain time before the dental procedure. This pill will relax the patient so that he feels less anxiety and may not even remember the procedure. Like nitrous oxide and IV sedation, the patient is still conscious during the procedure and is able to respond to the dentist’s commands, although he may not remember it later. Oral sedatives may also necessitate the use of local anesthesia since it also does not prevent a patient from feeling pain.
General anesthesia is normally reserved for complex dental procedures and does put the patient to sleep. This sedation method does carry certain risks, including a slight chance of death. A patient under the effects of general anesthesia will not feel pain and often is not able to breathe on his own. It is often required, therefore, that the doctor put a breathing tube down the patient’s throat while he is under the general anesthesia. A patient who had this type of sedative will often not be able to drive for several hours after the procedure, and so it is recommended that the patient arrange for a ride home from the dentist's office or hospital.