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What Are the Uses of Local Anesthesia in Dentistry?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Dentists use local anesthesia to manage pain in many different dental procedures, including fillings, root canals, and crown installations. Local anesthesia in dentistry usually works by numbing part of all of a patient’s mouth. Patients may still feel pressure as the dentist works, but they will not feel pain. Most of the time, local anesthesia is used only in the course of invasive procedures that require drilling or other tooth disturbance.

The main goal of local anesthesia in dentistry is the management of pain. Basically any time a procedure is likely to be painful, a dentist will offer local anesthesia. Local anesthesia is most commonly used in the filling of cavities. Any time a specific tooth needs work, however, local anesthesia can be applied to prevent the patient from feeling pain. This includes crown fitting, tooth reshaping, root canal procedures, and tooth realignment, as well as minor oral and gum surgeries, including stitches.

Numbing only the selected part of the mouth where the dentist is working allows the patient to remain alert but comfortable. This is an advantage to a general anesthetic, where the patient would be rendered unconscious and would need help doing things like getting home. The application of local anesthesia in dentistry often leaves the mouth feeling puffy and numb for a few hours after administration, but does not impair the patient’s clarity of thought or overall sense of well-being.

Local anesthesia in dentistry requires no special certifications or qualifications the way that general anesthesia does. As such, dentists can usually administer local anesthesia in the ordinary course of their work. Most dental offices keep a ready supply of local anesthesia products on hand.

There are two primary components to most local anesthesia: a numbing gel and an injectable liquid drug. The gel is typically administered with a cotton swab to the gums of the area to be numbed. It is a topical anesthetic and briefly numbs the gums and immediate area so that the pinch of the needle will not be as painful.

Most local anesthesia in dentistry is targeted at a specific tooth, or specific region of the mouth. The practice of selectively numbing portions of the mouth is known as blocking. Individual teeth can be blocked by injecting anesthesia into their gum base or pulp directly. Mouth quadrants can be numbed by injecting into the muscles of the jaw, the palate, or the cheek.

Depending on the patient, local anesthesia in dentistry might be combined with laughing gas or an oral sedative. While not always considered dental anesthesia, these treatments can keep a patient calm and can further the pain-management goals of the local anesthetic. Dentists always dose and determine local anesthetics on a patient-by-patient basis. The risks and side effects are few, and dosages can generally be progressively increased until the patient reports comfort.

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