Redhead Dread Part II

A couple of months ago, I wrote an extensive blog post about my experiences as a general dentist treating redheads.  I called it Redhead Dread to suggest that redheads dread going to the dentist.  The post was based upon research which found that individuals with red hair required more local anesthesia than non-redheads.  A natural conclusion from that research was that redheads would avoid dental care and/or be fearful of the dentist because of a greater likelihood of a past, painful experience in the dental chair.

Joan on Mad Men is a Redhead - does she dread the dentist

Joan (Christina Hendricks) plays a sassy character on Mad Men. But would she secretly dread a trip to the dentist? (image from fanpop.com)

A research paper released just last month by the Journal of Endodontics detailed the findings of a well designed study which looked at the effects of dental local anesthesia on women with red hair.  This study had a control group of women with dark hair in order to observe the differences. Some of the findings were surprising. Key conclusions were:

  1. In standard injections for the lower teeth using lidocaine (not novocaine), there was no difference in the success of the local anesthesia between redheads and dark haired females.
  2. Redheads felt more pain on needle insertion than dark haired females.
  3. Redheads experienced “significantly higher levels of dental anxiety” when compared to dark haired females.

Considerations for Dental Patients

The first conclusion stunned me, as it contradicted both previous research as well as my own experiences treating dozens of redheads over the past several years.  This was a well designed study but there was a relatively small number of study subjects.  Could the small number of participants explain the unexpected response? Possibly.  But I am not going to doubt or second guess the authors.  Nevertheless, a follow-up study with more participants would be beneficial.

In my own observations as a general dentist, conclusions 2 and 3 are closely linked and were expected. The anticipation of pain can make anyone, regardless of hair color, either amplify a minor pain stimulus into a very painful one, or create a perception of pain when no pain should have occurred.  Stated another way, an expectation of pain can create pain out of nowhere!

Because the first conclusion was a surprise, I do expect there will be additional research on this topic, which I will write about. Until then, we can conclude:

Redheads will have greater anxiety when it comes to receiving dental care. If you are a redhead, don’t be afraid to tell your dentist about any fears you may have!

What the heck is numbing jelly?

“Numbing Jelly” or Dental Topical Anesthesia.

I often ask my patients what they hate the most about a trip to the dentist, and a solid majority always says one thing: The Shot.  There are other things that patients do not like, and I even compiled an abridged list of things patients have told me they dread:

  • The sound of the dental drill.
  • The feeling of “too many things” in their mouth.
  • Being tilted back too far.
  • The thought of a “hole” being drilled into a body part.
  • The “suction thingy” (a.k.a. saliva ejector or spit sucker).
  • The spray of the water.
  • The taste of metal instruments.
  • Two individuals (dentist and assistant) staring into their mouth
  • And literally hundreds of other things…

All of these things are reasons why patients avoid the dentist.  However, based on my experience as a dentist, these items all pale in comparison to the administration of local anesthetic.  Local anesthetic is necessary for all types of dental procedures, including fillings, crowns, root canals, implants, etc.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Orange, CT where I practice or thousands of miles away, patients hate the shot!

Dentist and Needles | Topical anesthetic| West Hartford Family DentistryNot surprisingly, dentists and dental supply manufacturers have been identifying and developing techniques over the years to eliminate the pain and fear associated with the local anesthesia injection.  Perhaps the biggest and most significant development was the introduction of narrow diameter disposable needles.  Prior to the 1950s, the needles used were much larger in order for them to be able to stand up to multiple sterilization cycles. I’ve had many older patients who experienced dental procedures back in the 1940s who described these as “horse needles.” Now we use much narrower disposable needles.  I will cover the history of dental needles in a future blog post.  But regardless, a needle is still a needle!

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Redhead Dread

Do redheads dread a trip to the dentist?

Redheads dread the dentist due to resistance to local anesthesia

Redheads. Image courtesy The New York Times

When I stumbled across this article in the New York Times back in 2009, the conclusions seemed eerily familiar.  In my own personal experiences as a dentist in Orange, CT and elsewhere, patients with red hair seemed to be more apprehensive regarding dental care, and also seemed to have the dreaded “well, it looks like you’re not quite numb enough with the first shot, let me give you a bit more” phenomenon occur to them with much greater frequency than patients with darker hair and complexions.

As much as I would like to delve into the true scientific details, those facts go beyond the scope of this post.  But to summarize, redheads have a mutation (basically a change in their genetic makeup) that produces red hair and fair skin.  But that same mutation also affects receptors in the brain that govern pain perception.  Although the exact mechanism is not quite fully understood, studies show that redheads have resistance to lidocaine.  Lidocaine is the most commonly used dental local anesthetic used in the United States. Chances are, when you visit the dentist, and get “The Shot”, you are receiving lidocaine.

So if redheads have resistance to lidocaine, then they are more likely to feel pain during a dental procedure.  But does that translate into more dental anxiety?  Of course.  You don’t need published research to reach that conclusion!   However, in medicine and dentistry, we do like to have our conclusions backed up by sold research.  A 2009 article by the Journal of the American Dental Association did confirm that redheads have “increased dental-care anxiety” and exhibit “avoidance of dental care.”

As a practicing dentist, I always look at research and then ask myself how the findings apply to my patients, either past, present, or future.  This is true not just with this specific research finding but with all the developments that are continuously occurring in dentistry.  A lot of research doesn’t immediately apply. However, this is one case in which the findings have immediately impacted how I approach my patients – specifically patients with red hair.

Lidocaine also known as xylocaine is a dental local anesthetic used in the United States

Dental Carpule of Lidocaine with epinephrine. Redheads have a documented resistance to Lidiocaine.

No dentist is perfect and can get 100% of the patients 100% numb with the first injection.  Any dentist that claims that is lying. There are too many factors that come into play.  As a dentist, it is tempting to find something or someone to blame when your patient does not get numb with the first injection.  Blame the assistant!  The anesthetic must be expired!  The patient moved!  The sun was in my eyes!  The sun was in the patient’s eyes!  It was a full moon last night!  This happens to all dentists and to all patients – independent of hair color.

However, upon thinking back on my own patients who were “tough” to get numb, a disproportionately large percentage had red hair and fair skin.  These patients seemed to require 2 to 3 injections to get numb.  Another observation is that these patients always knew they would need more.  They were the first ones to say “Hey doc, I always seem to need 2 or 3 shots every time I get a cavity filled.”  But they never knew why they needed more local anesthetic.

In my experience, if you know a patient is going to be a challenge to effectively anesthetize, administering extra local anesthetic right off the bat is the best solution. The patient appreciates it.  The second injection, if done properly, will rarely hurt, and will almost guarantee that the patient does not feel any part of the procedure. Since this article was published in the New York Times in 2009, I’ve told numerous redheads about it.  Upon telling them, they nearly universally have an expression of “Wow!! Now I finally understand why I’ve always felt pain and dreaded coming to the dentist.”  And from then on, their fears are reduced, permanently.

So how do we approach redheads who avoid care because of past negative experiences?  This is a lot more challenging! Most redheads are unaware that their genetics are pre-determining them to have more pain in the dental chair (unless more local anesthesia is administered).  So they must be informed of this. Simply informing anxious patients of this genetic phenomenon and how we address it is enough for many patients.  More severe cases of dental anxiety require different approaches.  I have training in sedation dentistry which has allowed me to treat patients who have moderate to severe dental phobias. This has allowed me to personally treat hundreds of patients too scared for “regular dentistry.”  But unfortunately, very few dentists have the training, equipment, and staff to do sedation dentistry safely. I will try to describe other techniques in a future blog post.

Many redheads still do dread the dentist, but now they don’t need to anymore.  There are many dentists out there equipped with this knowledge helping redheads overcome their anxieties, one patient at a time.