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Updated on July 25, 2022

Dental Anesthesia: What is it & When is it Used?

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What is Dental Anesthesia?

Dental anesthesia helps manage pain during dental procedures and surgeries.

It blocks painful sensations in specific areas of your mouth. It can be used while you are conscious or unconscious, depending on the procedure, your individual needs, and your doctor's recommendation.

dentist making local anesthesia shot

Local anesthesia is a medication that makes parts of your mouth numb throughout the procedure. The effects typically last for a few hours after the treatment.

Anesthesia is a safe way to help patients relax, feel safe, and experience less pain before, during, and after procedures are complete. Anesthesia can cause you to be in a semi-conscious or unconscious state.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA):

The administration of local anesthesia, sedation, and general anesthesia is an
integral part of dental practice.

ADA Guidelines for the Use of Sedation and General Anesthesia by Dentists

There are three types of dental anesthesia:

  • Local
  • Sedation
  • General

Each type is used for specific pain control purposes.

3 Types of Anesthesia

Dentists determine which anesthesia is best for each patient based on:

  • The type of procedure (invasive or minor)
  • Patient's personal preference and needs
  • Patient's medical history

The following is a description of each type of anesthesia and their use cases.

Local Anesthesia

Local anesthesia is the most common type of anesthesia. Doctors administer it during minor dental procedures, such as:

Commonly used dental anesthetics include lidocaine, articaine, prilocaine, mepivacaine, and bupivacaine.

These drugs are applied topically or injected into a specific location in your mouth. They usually begin working in less than 10 minutes. The area will become numb, but you will still be conscious and able to communicate. The effects will last throughout the procedure, and for several hours afterward.

Local anesthetics are also available as prescription or over-the-counter medications. They come in gel, cream, liquid, ointment, spray, patch, and injectable forms.


Sedatives and anesthesia are used for different reasons.

Sedation dentistry can help relieve nervousness and anxiety during dental work, reduce pain, or help keep patients from moving.

Anesthesia is used to eliminate pain and discomfort.

Sedation can be administered in mild, moderate, or deep strengths. Mild sedation keeps you conscious, and you can respond to commands. Moderate sedation may put you in a state of semiconsciousness. Deep sedation often makes you unaware of your surroundings and you are unable to respond to stimulation.

A popular sedation option is nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which is an inhalable gas that can be administered via a nasal hood over the nose. Other examples include diazepam (Valium), midazolam (Versed), and propofol (Diprivan).

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.

General Anesthesia

General anesthesia results in a temporary loss of consciousness. It is used for longer procedures, or if a patient has high levels of anxiety that may cause them to move around.

This type of anesthesia is often referred to as a medically induced coma. 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:

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. Most types of dental anesthesia are considered safe and effective when safely used.
  5. Anesthesia is not a “sleep medication,” which means the patient will remain conscious during the procedure (except general anesthesia).

Anesthesia Side Effects

Dental anesthesia is a common and safe treatment.

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, and usually only felt with sedation or general anesthesia. These may include:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Swelling (in the mouth or at the injection site)
  • Sweating or shivering
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Tiredness
  • Lockjaw

Risks of Anesthesia

Anesthesiology is considered a safe, effective, and necessary component of dental care. However, there are certain groups that are at higher risk for adverse effects.

Those that should speak to a dental office or anesthesiologist before their procedure includes:

  • Pregnant women
  • Pediatric patients
  • People with special needs
  • Elderly adults
  • Anyone with liver, kidney, lung, or heart problems
  • People with neurological conditions
  • People taking other medications, such as opioids
  • History of allergy to anesthesia medication

Though complications are rare, there are some risks involved in dental anesthesia.

Potential adverse reactions include:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Nerve damage
  • Low blood pressure
  • A dangerous increase in body temperature (malignant hyperthermia)
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Failed breathing
  • Death

The Bottom Line

Dental anesthesia is a safe and effective way to eliminate pain and reduce anxiety during dental surgery and other common procedures.

Anyone who is feeling anxious about their dental visit should speak with their doctor beforehand.

Share your medical history with your dentist. Be sure to include any other medications you are currently taking (over-the-counter or prescription).

They will be able to explain your different options for anesthesia or sedation and recommend the best choice for you. They will also provide instructions for before and after the procedure.

Some anesthetics will have specific diet restrictions, while others may require you to arrange transportation from your dentist's office.

2 Sources Cited
Last updated on July 25, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Hudetz, Anthony G., and Axel Hutt. General Anesthesia: From Theory to Experiments. Frontiers Media SA, 2016.
  2. Logothetis, Demetra D. Local Anesthesia for the Dental Hygienist Pageburst E-Book. Mosby Inc, 2016.
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