As a dentist in private practice, I administer local anesthesia routinely. Or, in layman’s terms, I give numbing shots daily. That’s just two ways of saying the same thing!
Occasionally, when I am doing certain injections (and note that there are different types of injections that dentists administer – more on that later), the patient will experience an electric shock sensation originating from the injection area. This ends up being quite a shock to the patient (pun intended) with me then subsequently spending significant time explaining why/what happened.
In addition to seeing this happen periodically in my own office, I get tons of comments and inquires on this blog about “the electric shock they got” from the dentist’s needle. Since nearly all of my articles are either about my own experiences – or from inquires I get on this blog – I decided it was time to do a post on this phenomenon.
Infiltrations versus Nerve Blocks
To understand why the electric shock occurs, a little background information is needed.
In medicine – and I do consider dentistry to fall under the medical umbrella – there are various techniques for numbing a particular anatomical region. An infiltration is when local anesthetic is deposited directly adjacent to the site to be worked upon. In these cases, the local anesthetic works by affecting tiny, microscopic nerve endings that almost resemble a spider web.
In contrast, with a nerve block, the local anesthetic is deposited adjacent to a large branch of a nerve. This ends up numbing everything that the nerve supplies downstream from the area the anesthetic was administered.
To use an analogy: picture a tree. An infiltration is where anesthetic is placed next to a single leaf. A nerve block is when the anesthetic is placed next to a large branch close to where it is coming off the trunk.
Shock and Awe
When it does occur, the electric shock phenomenon is nearly always associated with a nerve block (as opposed to an infiltration). Why does this occur?
The shock sensation is believed to occur when the needle makes contact with part of the nerve trunk (sources: here, here, and here). The needle basically enters the tissue, touches the actual nerve, and the trauma from that immediate contact provokes a signal that your nervous system perceives and interprets as an electric shock feeling.
Some key facts:
- The incidence of this occurring is between 1.3% to 8% of the time for mandibular nerve blocks (the large difference is based on different sample sizes).
- Studies have shown that an electric shock sensation does not place the patient in a higher risk category for permanent nerve injury.
- The most commonly involved nerve is the lingual nerve (which will give rise to a shock sensation in the tongue on the affected side.
As you can see, since the origin of the electric shock is contact with a nerve trunk, it is nearly impossible for this to occur with an infiltration.
What to Do if You Feel the Electric Shock?
With dentists administering millions of injections per year, this occurs on a regular basis throughout the world. Keep in mind:
- Although the feeling was unpleasant and unexpected, the research clearly shows that this does not place you at a higher risk for permanent nerve issues (see bullet point #2 above).
- In many times, you get numb extremely quickly.
- This happens to all dentists periodically and this phenomenon alone does not mean your dentist is unqualified or negligent.
Since this occurs when the needle makes contact with the nerve trunk, it means your dentist was dead on with his/her aim. So, if you like, you can congratulate him/her on hitting a bulls-eye! Or, just understand that the human anatomy is unpredictable, and sometimes things like this happen.
Note: the sources used for this post are listed above and are also based on my own experiences. Note that I cannot answer emails to me asking for dental advice. The title for this post is based on the “Don’t Tase me Bro” incident and I have no relationship with Mr. Meyer. This post should not be construed as me providing commentary on that incident.