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Controlling dental pain

Some people’s first thought when thinking of going to the dentist is pain.

However, advances in dental and pain relief techniques mean that the experience in the dentist's chair is as pain-free as possible.

Pain medication at the dentist's surgery

  • Topical anaesthetics. Topical anaesthetics, applied with a swab, are routinely used to numb the area in the mouth or gums where the work will be done. The topical anaesthetic is given before injection with a local anaesthetic, such as Lidocaine.
  • Lasers. These are used by some dentists to more precisely remove decay within a tooth and prepare the surrounding enamel for a filling. Lasers may cause less pain in some instances and result in a reduced need for anaesthesia.
  • Electronically delivered anaesthesia. Also called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation [TENS], this is an alternative to the injection of anaesthesia. Adhesive pads are placed on the face and electrical impulses are sent through them to numb the treatment area.. The patient controls the level of stimulation through a hand-held device.. Another form of electronically delivered anaesthesia is called cranial electrotherapy stimulation. Here electrical signals are passed to the brain helping relaxation. Again, the patient controls the intensity of the current. The advantage of these approaches is that as soon as the device is switched off, the effect is instantly reversed and a patient can drive and carry on as normal immediately after they leave the dentists.
  • Nitrous oxide. Also called laughing gas, this gas is inhaled by the patient through a rubber face mask. It helps people feel relaxed and is one of the most common forms of sedation used in the dentist’s surgery. The effects wear off quickly after the gas is turned off.
  • Intravenous sedation. A sedative is injected into a vein on a patient's arm or hand to control pain and anxiety. It is usually only used for patients undergoing extensive dental procedures or for those who are extremely anxious. Patients will be constantly monitored throughout the procedure in case extra oxygen is needed. With IV sedation, the patient is awake but very relaxed. If you think you may be interested in IV sedation, ask your dentist if he or she is qualified to administer it.
  • Oral sedation. An oral medication which works on the central nervous system to help patients relax. However, they are often not prescribed because it takes about 30 minutes before their effects are felt and they can cause drowsiness that can last for hours.
  • General anaesthesia. The patient is "put to sleep" for the procedure. Patients requiring general anaesthesia can be treated in the dentist's clinic, but are more likely to be treated in a hospital setting. This is because this type of anaesthesia has risks, which include a sudden drop in blood pressure and irregular heartbeats, so the patient needs to be closely monitored. For these reasons, general anaesthesia is typically only used if extensive dental work is needed and when other forms of sedation or pain control are not sufficient to conquer fear. If you think you may be interested in general anaesthetic, ask your dentist if he or she is qualified to administer this form of sedation.

Talk to your dentist about the best option for you.

Make sure they know about any allergies or health conditions you may have and medication you take.

Not all dentists will offer all these sedation options. But others will specialise in treating people who are anxious about visiting the dentist, or who have dental phobia.

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