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What is Dental Anesthesia?

To help alleviate pain and discomfort before dental surgery, your dentist or dental hygienist (in some states) may administer dental anesthesia. Anesthesia is a safe pain control mechanism that eliminates negative sensations in a specific area without the loss of consciousness (except general anesthesia).

The medications create a numbing feeling during minorly invasive oral procedures and even remain active for a few hours after treatment. Anesthesia allows patients to relax, feel safe, and experience less pain before, during, and after the procedures are complete.

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Anesthesia vs Sedation Dentistry

Sedatives and anesthesia are used for different reasons. Unlike anesthesia, sedation dentistry relieves nervousness and anxiety during dental work, while anesthesia eliminates pain and discomfort. A popular sedation option is nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which can be administered via an injectable or an oral pill.

Patients with severe anxiety typically need a sedative before receiving an injection of anesthesia, especially if they have a fear of needles. Those with dental phobia, which is an intense fear of visiting the dentist, often visit sedation dentists to receive proper care.

5 Benefits of Anesthesia

Patients with anxiety or fear of dental treatments are also more likely to refuse local anesthetics during dental hygiene procedures. However, after your dentist explains the benefits of anesthesia in detail, you can relax during the procedure and feel less pain. The primary benefits of anesthesia include:

  1. Using anesthesia can consolidate multiple appointments into one appointment.
  2. The patient will experience little to no pain during the procedure.
  3. Anesthesia can be used in combination with sedation dentistry to relieve anxiety, pain, fear, and discomfort during procedures.
  4. All types of dental anesthesia are completely safe and effective.
  5. Anesthesia is not a “sleep medication,” which means the patient will remain conscious during the procedure (except general anesthesia).

4 Possible Anesthesia Side Effects

Dental anesthesia is a common and safe treatment. Although, before administration, the dentist should be aware of your full medical history, alcohol abuse history, and any allergies to ensure complications are avoided. Side effects are rare, but may include:

  1. Nausea
  2. Dizziness
  3. Vomiting
  4. Swelling (in the mouth or at the injection site)

Types of Anesthesia

Dentists determine which anesthesia is best for each patient based on the procedure type (invasive or minor), the patient’s preference, and their medical history. There are three main types of dental anesthesia, including:

Local Anesthesia

Local anesthesia is a membrane-stabilizing drug. It is also the most common type of anesthesia patients receive during minorly invasive dental procedures. Commonly used dental anesthetics include lidocaine, articaine, prilocaine, mepivacaine, and bupivacaine.

The drug is injected into the mouth, which numbs the treated area and causes a loss of nociception (pain receptor). In other words, it prevents the conduction and generation of pain around the injection site, which ultimately eliminates pain and discomfort for up to four hours after the procedure is complete. Patients remain awake and conscious during the entire procedure.

Local anesthesia is commonly used during minor restorative dental procedures, such as:

General Anesthesia

Unlike local anesthesia or sedation, general anesthesia results in a temporary loss of consciousness during a dental procedure. This type of anesthesia is often referred to as a medically induced coma, not sleep. The patient will remain unresponsive during the entire procedure and will not feel any pain. The medication is normally inhaled or administered intravenously (IV sedation).

The difference between general anesthesia and IV conscious sedation is the patient’s ability to respond and breathe on his or her own. General anesthesia is also typically administered to patients in a hospital setting undergoing invasive oral surgeries, including:


Hudetz, Anthony G., and Axel Hutt. General Anesthesia: From Theory to Experiments. Frontiers Media SA, 2016.

Logothetis, Demetra D. Local Anesthesia for the Dental Hygienist Pageburst E-Book. Mosby Inc, 2016.

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Updated on: December 15, 2020
Alyssa Hill
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Medically Reviewed
Photo of Lara Coseo
Dr. Lara Coseo
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