I Passed Out at the Dentist. Why?

As a full time general dentist in private practice, I’ve seen patients faint more than once. And as a dental blogger, I’ve seen all types of comments and questions on this site about patients passing out. In fact, most people mistakenly assume that when something like this happens, it is because they are allergic to something the dentist used. In nearly all cases, that is an incorrect conclusion.

So, why is it that some people faint and/or pass out at the dentist? And what causes it?

Common Medical Emergencies in Dental Offices

In a widely cited survey, the number one emergency seen in a dental office is fainting – or more appropriately called syncope (sources: here and here). In fact, in one study, syncope accounted for 53% of all emergencies in a dental office (source: here). The second most common emergency is hyperventilation.

fainting at the dentist is not treated as an allergic reaction

Many mistakenly assume that fainting at the dentist is due to an allergic reaction.

To many individuals who’ve had adverse reactions at the dentist, this fact can come as quite a surprise. The scenarios that most patients believe are occurring – usually acute allergic reactions as well as cardiac events – very rarely occur.

Fainting vs. Passing Out vs. Vasovagal Syncope

Generally speaking, the above three terms are all roughly the same, with the term vasovagal syncope being the medically appropriate one. It can be defined as a temporary loss of consciousness due to a decrease in blood flow to the brain.

dental needle fear can cause fainting or passing out.

This is the most common trigger for an episode in a dental office.

Your brain is in constant need of oxygen. If blood flow to the brain is temporarily diminished, you are no longer able to function, and you lose consciousness. If this happens, it most often results in you falling to the floor, which then puts your head at the same level as your heart. This change in position, along with the removal of the stimulus which caused the episode (more on this later), then allows for adequate blood to flow to your brain, and you very quickly regain consciousness.

In vasovagal syncope, a trigger (such as the sight of a needle) will cause a susceptible individual’s nervous system to over-react and cause certain physiologic changes which can lead to the decrease in blood flow to the brain.

Common Triggers of Vasovagal Syncope in a Dental Office

dental drill can cause you to pass out or faint

The dental handpiece or “drill” can cause some to pass out.

A dental office is a unique setting in that the patients walking through the door typically don’t want to be in the office, but they know they have to. This is why passing out episodes occur quite frequently. The most common triggers seen in a dental office include:

  • The sight of the needle (this is the number 1 trigger).
  • The slight sting of the dental injection.
  • The sight of blood.
  • The smell of an office.
  • The high pitched squeal of the dental handpiece.
  • And others.

So, if a trigger is experienced by a susceptible individual, the syncope episode can commence.

A Typical Fainting Episode at the Dentist

Each and every episode of passing out is unique, as is every patient. The following is a classic example of what someone might experience in a vasovagal syncopal episode at the dentist.

  • You don’t like coming to the dentist but you know you have to get a filling. You have been dreading it for over a week.
  • You are called in from the reception area. While walking in, you see a needle that looks large and intimidating.
  • The dentist comes in and says hello. At this point, you’re still thinking about the needle, and you begin to feel somewhat lightheaded.
  • You hear the dentist talking to the assistant but their voices seem muffled. You notice that you are breaking out into a sweat, even though the temperature was perfect just a couple of minutes earlier.
  • You begin to have a feeling of nausea and your thoughts appear fuzzy. Your muscles suddenly feel incredibly weak and you don’t even think you could lift your hand. You attempt to say something but you can’t muster the strength or thoughts to put words together.
  • Your vision appears compromised, first by seeing bright lights, and then with black or cloudy vision. You are sitting upright but all you want to do is lie down…

Next thing you know, the chair is completely reclined and you are lying horizontally in it. The dentist and the assistant are sitting next to you. The dentist is looking at you intently and is feeling your pulse on your wrist. He/she notices you waking up and says:

“Well, it looks like you fainted for a bit. Don’t worry. It happens more often than you think. We’ll keep you reclined for a couple of more minutes and then we’ll slowly bring the chair up.”

Final Thoughts

If this is anything like similar posts, this will generate a lot of traffic and comments. Please consider reading other posts I have on similar topics. If you think you’re allergic to novocaine, you should read this three part series (one, two, and three). If you think you’re allergic to epinephrine, you need to read this and this. If you’ve had difficulty getting numb, check out this post and this post. Enjoy!

 

Long Term Opioid Use and Dental Local Anesthesia

Norco opioid pain medication used by dentists

Norco – a common opioid pain medication

As a dentist in a busy private practice, I am constantly doing dentistry, which involves injections of local anesthesia. I have blogged previously about certain circumstances in which it can be difficult to get a patient numb (those are located here and here). But an increasingly common phenomenon involves difficulty in getting patients numb who are long time users of opioids (often called narcotics).

A common situation is a patient with chronic pain who has been taking an opioid type painkiller long term (such as Percocet, Oxycodone, Oxycontin, etc.). A dental procedure that requires effective local anesthesia is attempted on that patient. During the procedure, it is learned rather quickly that the patient is having difficulty either getting numb and/or staying numb.

Opioids, Narcotics, Pain Pills, Etc.

The term opioid is derived from the word opium, which is a component of the opium poppy. The raw opium can be processed to produce morphine or heroin – both of which are powerful pain relievers. The term opioid simply means a medication that acts on the opioid receptor.

Opium poppy, the basis for narcotics

The opium poppy – the flower from which morphine and heroin are derived. Image courtesy wikipedia.

Millions of Americans take opioids for both acute and chronic pain. For those individuals who take them chronic pain, a tolerance will develop, requiring larger doses. Large doses of opioids taken over time can lead to many long term effects. Many of those effects – constipation, dry mouth, etc. – are well documented. What is not well documented nor well researched is how long term use impacts the effectiveness of local anesthesia.

Long Term Opioid Use and Dental Local Anesthesia

Unfortunately, there is very little “official” information available for practicing dentists and dental students on which to rely. The most widely read and cited textbook on local anesthesia for dentists – A Handbook of Local Anesthesia – by Dr. Stanley Malamed – makes no mention of this phenomenon.

Lidocaine is less effective in opioid users.

Multiple studies have shown lidocaine is less effective in opioid users.

However, a survey of recent research has shown multiple articles which directly and/or indirectly give support to this phenomenon:

  • In this article, opium abusers were compared to non-abusers in their response to lidocaine (lidocaine has replaced novocaine as the local anesthetic of choice in dentistry). The abusers were found to require a longer amount of time for the lidocaine to work. And in addition, a greater amount of lidocaine was required.
  • In this study involving rats, the administration of morphine (an opioid) resulted in a decrease in the potency of lidocaine.
  • In another study involving opium vs. non opium users, chronic users experienced a shorter duration of local anesthesia than non users.

In fact, there is a specific term for a related phenomenon, which is Opioid Induced Hyperalgesia. Basically, those individuals who are chronic users can become MORE sensitive to painful stimuli.

However, despite all of these studies, there remains to be seen a widely accepted theory for a mechanism behind the local anesthesia resistance seen in these individuals.

What This Means for Dental Patients

As with most dental issues and concerns, the most important thing is to make sure your dentist is aware of your history. This can and should include any history of any and all use of prescribed and recreational drug use.

Will it be possible for you to get completely numb? There is no way to know for sure – each and every person is unique. However, if your dentist is aware of your history, then it is much more likely that the best approach(es) can be taken.

 

Why It Can Hurt to Open Your Mouth After a Filling

Every now and then, we get a phone call from a patient who we saw a couple of days earlier. It goes something like this:

I had a filling done on my last tooth on the lower left three days ago. The filling and tooth feel fine, but it hurts to open my mouth, especially if I try to open wide.

We then go on to explain to our patient WHY this is the case and how it is normal.

So why is there pain with opening? There are two major factors.

Dental Injections for Lower Molars

In many cases, the pain while opening is from the injection. For lower molars, most dentists will do a nerve block, which involves a very long needle. See the photo below.

Dental shot for a lower tooth can cause pain while opening

A dental injection used to anesthetize a lower right molar. The needle in this photo is 1 and 1/4 inches long.

As can be seen in the above photo, a needle is inserted into the muscle in the back of the mouth. In most cases, for this injection, the needle goes in nearly to the hub, which would mean approximately 1 and 1/4 inches.

Here’s an analogy: feel your biceps and press it hard enough so you can feel the bone underneath. Then, imagine taking a needle, and inserting it through the biceps, approximately 1 inch, until the needle hits bone. Then, imagine doing that a second time. Don’t you think that moving the arm and using that muscle over the next several days would hurt?

The biceps analogy is very effective. Everyone understands that their arm would be sore. So, if you get an injection back there, or in some cases two, using that muscle in opening and closing can frequently elicit pain for several days afterwards.

Your TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint)

The second source of pain while opening after a filling can be from the actual jaw joint, known as the TMJ (temporomandibular joint). This is the area at which your lower jaw bone connects to the base of the skull.

Your jaw joint was made for all of your daily activities – talking, smiling, eating normal foods, etc. The joint was not designed for “abnormal” tasks such as gum chewing, chewing on ice, or holding your mouth open for your dentist or hygienist to work.

photo of TMJ in a skull which can have pain after opening

The temporomandibular (TMJ) joint. Pain in this joint as well as the muscles and ligaments associated with the joint can occur after a dental visit.

Here’s another analogy: imagine standing on the tips of your toes. Now do this for 5 minute intervals several times, with perhaps 30 second breaks in between. Do this for approximately 45 minutes. Don’t you think that the next day, moving that muscle and the joints would be sore? This assumes you are not a ballet dancer.

A cleaning or a filling of moderate duration will be a lot like the above. Lots of straining to keep your mouth open, which can lead to fatigue and soreness in the muscles and joint. This can then result in pain and soreness on opening for several days.

Some Assumptions

We find that one or both of these reasons are responsible for the pain and soreness approximately 99% of the time. There are other circumstances which can include:

  • Infection of either a tooth or an infection at the injection site.
  • Pain after a surgical procedure such as a lower wisdom tooth extraction.
  • Aphthous ulcers (cold sores) in the back of the throat.
  • Upper respiratory infections, etc.
  • And many others.

Of course there can be other explanations. But for the vast majority of the time, the pain is either from the actual injection or in joint after being open for a prolonged period of time.

Dental Galvanism: Galvanic Shock and Your Teeth

This is certainly an “electrifying” topic (pun intended). After all, learning that electric current can run through your own body can be quite a “shock” to almost anyone!

In dental galvinism, a small amount of electricity is generated when two dissimilar metals in dental restorations make contact, most often when teeth with those metals touch. The result is a harmless but very memorable shock!

There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills

Many years ago, dental gold was the most commonly used material in crowns. In fact, a gold crown was considered the “gold standard” in reliability, especially for back teeth.

Gold onlay which can produce galvanic current if it contacts another metal

Gold onlay on a molar tooth. If this contacts an amalgam, be prepared for a small but real shock!

Dental gold is actually an alloy of many metals. But the biggest component is gold. While gold crowns are not used very frequently anymore, there are still hundreds of thousands – if not a couple of million – Americans with gold in their mouths.

An Amalgamation of Metals

Dental amalgam is a filling material that is still used today. True to its name, it is an amalgam or mixture of many metals. Those metals include silver, mercury, tin, copper, and other elements in trace amounts.

dental amalgam filling that can cause galvanism

Mercury/Silver amalgam fillings on two back teeth. If there’s a gold crown on a tooth below these, look out!

Amalgam is mixed and then placed directly into the the tooth where it will then harden up. With time, the surface will tarnish a bit, but the metal is still exposed and can participate in galvanic shock.

“Current” Explanation on Galvanism

We’ve established that in certain people, there can be two different or dissimilar metals in your mouth. Those metals are bathed in saliva with ions which acts as an ideal conductor of electricity. So what causes the shock?

A silver fork can also produce galvanism.

A silver fork can also produce galvanism.

Certain metals can have what are called electrical potentials. This means that there is the possibility for electrical current to flow to or from that metal. Current can flow if that metal is connected to another, different metal if there is a difference in potential. For example, if a gold crown makes contact with an amalgam filling, current can flow between them because there is a difference in electrical potential between the gold in the gold crown and certain metals in the amalgam filling.

Examples where galvanic shock can occur include:

  1. A gold crown contacting an amalgam filling.
  2. The tine of a silver fork or other utensil contacting a gold crown.
  3. A piece of aluminum foil touching a gold crown or amalgam filling.

When this occurs, a noticeable and memorable shock will occur. If you are not expecting it, you will be very surprised!

How to Treat Dental Galvanism

If this does occur to you, there are different ways to approach it. The easiest way is for your dentist to adjust the filling and/or gold crown so that they can’t touch one another when you chew. If one or both metals become tarnished, the galvanic shock will not occur, but there is no good way to produce a tarnish over the restorations. In more extreme cases, the fillings or crowns can be replaced.

Note: there are many websites and even dentists who claim that dental galvanism can lead to many systemic diseases and other conditions. Proceed with caution should you elect to believe these sources.