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Sedation vs. Local Anesthetic: What’s The Difference?

There are a variety of options available to make dental operations more comfortable and relaxing. These options can help ease pain, help you relax, or even put you in a deep sleep. Factors like the type of procedure, your overall health, anxiety levels, and allergies can all play a part in deciding what type of medication is best for your dental visit. Sedation and local anesthetic are two commonly used options, and though they may seem interchangeable, there are actually several key differences between them that help your dentist decide which is right for you. Read on to find out how they work, the differences between the two, and what to expect with each.

Local Anesthetic

When you hear the word anesthesia, you likely think of general anesthesia, which is used for major surgeries where the patient needs to be unconscious in order to operate. However, most dentists use local anesthesia, which only numbs a small area to prevent pain. For dental work, it can be used to prevent pain in a certain area of the mouth that needs attention. Before applying the anesthesia, your doctor or dentist will ask you what you have eaten or taken within the past 24 hours to ensure the absence of blood thinning agents in your system. A topical anesthetic may be applied before the local anesthesia is injected to numb the mouth tissues.

Injectable anesthetics work by blocking the nerves that transmit pain, which allows the dentist to perform procedures like cavity fillings. Your dentist will first confirm that the area is numb before continuing, and you should not feel any pain. You still may feel some pressure.

Cavities do not always give signs, which is why regular check-ups are necessary. However, if you have some of the common signs of a cavity, like toothache or sensitivity to temperature, this could indicate that the decay is progressing, and that you should see your dentist right away. Aside from cavities, local anesthetic may be needed for other procedures, such as treating gum disease or preparing teeth for crowns. Your dentist may also prescribe a pain reliever to take after the procedure is complete.


In addition to controlling pain, sedation can alleviate anxiety and reduce patient movement during a procedure. Sedatives can be used for a variety of medical treatments, are are mostly administered via inhalation or injection.

Nitrous oxide, commonly referred to as laughing gas, is a well-known example of an inhaled sedative. It provides a mild anesthetic effect, promotes relaxation, and relieves anxiety. This option is very safe and often used for children, since the effects can be easily reversed by inhaling oxygen, and it does not leave the patient feeling confused or sleepy.

Intravenous, or IV, sedation is administered through a vein, typically in the back of the hand. This stronger type of sedation is often reserved for oral surgeries like wisdom teeth removal, but is safe for both adults and children. You will feel drowsy and relaxed at first, then fall asleep but may still be responsive while “under.” This is far different than general anesthesia, which renders you completely unconscious throughout the operation. For this reason, intravenous sedation is sometimes referred to as “twilight sleep.”

When you wake up, you will likely not remember the surgery, and instead feel like you have just taken a nap. However, you may wake up feeling drowsy, so it is best to have a friend or family member drive you home after the procedure.

Pediatric Sedation

Conscious sedation is commonly used for children during dental procedures, as it allows them to relax, and has little to no side effects. This type of pediatric dentistry is absolutely safe for children when administered by a professional like those at Arkansas Family Dental.

Unless there is a dental procedure like wisdom teeth removal that requires IV sedation, most children receive an inhaled sedative during a routine dental visit, if needed. You can prepare for your child’s dental visit by finding out in advance what to expect. If an IV sedation is recommended, all the details, such as how much time to block off for surgery, and when to stop eating the night before the operation, will be provided by your dentist.

For family dental services Little Rock, contact the caring team at Arkansas Family Dental. At Arkansas Family Dental, we treat every patient like family, and we want to work with you to create a dental plan that fits your needs and budget. Contact us today, or schedule an appointment to meet our caring and professional team.

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Tina Nichols

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