While many people are apprehensive about getting into the dentist’s chair, the thought of doing so can be even more daunting for patients with a strong gag reflex. Avoiding going to the dentist, however, is no solution; delayed dental care due to fear of gagging can increase your risk for serious oral health concerns. Whether your gag reflex is minor or severe, you and your dentist can work together to help lessen your odds of gagging and make your experience at the dentist much more comfortable.
What Triggers the Gag Reflex?
First of all, understanding what causes your gag reflex can help you take steps to reduce its effects. People often disagree whether the gag reflex is produced by physical factors or psychological concerns, but the truth is that an over-active gag reflex can be caused by either source–or a combination of both.
In short, the gag reflex–also known as the pharyngeal reflex–is one of the body’s defense mechanisms aimed at keeping foreign objects from entering your throat and blocking your airway, causing you to choke. The strength of this reflex, however, differs from person to person. Many people have no gag reflex at all, but the opposite concern–an over-active gag reflex–is equally common and physiological in nature.
At the same time, psychological factors can contribute to making a person’s gag reflex more severe, worsening an already-existing gagging problem or actually creating one. Many people experience anxiety around dental appointments, particularly if they’ve had issues gagging in the past or some other traumatic experience. This stress and anxiety can cause a greater tendency to gag while in the dentist’s chair.
What You Can Do To Lessen Your Gag Reflex
Whether your gag reflex is triggered by physiological factors or psychological ones, you can take steps to lower your chances of gagging when having dental work done.
1. Concentrate on breathing through your nose
Breathing through your mouth is one of the most common gag reflex triggers, but it’s often the default when your mouth is propped open. Focus your attention on breathing deeply through your nose instead. If a cold or allergies have resulted in a stuffy nose, take an over-the-counter decongestant prior to arriving at your dentist’s office or try using nasal strips.
2. Don’t attempt to swallow your saliva
No one likes the idea of drooling in the dentist’s chair, but trying to prevent drool from escaping your mouth by swallowing your saliva often leads to gagging.
3. Find a distraction
Taking your focus off of your mouth can often lessen your chances of engaging your gag reflex. Squeezing a stress ball, listening to music through headphones or employing self-hypnosis techniques are all excellent distractions from ongoing dental work.
4. Employ desensitization techniques prior to your dental appointment
In advance of any dental work, you can take steps to reduce your soft palate’s gag-inducing sensitivity to touch. Locate where your gag reflex begins on your tongue using your toothbrush, and then brush in this spot for about ten seconds. After repeating this for several nights, you’ll find that you gag less. Continue the same process nightly, moving your toothbrush back as your gag reflex slowly becomes desensitized. While this may be unpleasant at first, this desensitization technique can actually offer a long-term treatment for your over-active gag reflex over the course of about a month.
What Your Dentist Can Do To Help
Because having your gag reflex triggered by dental work is so common, dentists in general are well aware of this issue and have methods to help you reduce or prevent your gag reflex while in their chair.
1. Listen to your concerns
First and foremost, speaking to your dentist about your issues with gagging can be one of the most effective tools for avoiding triggering your gag reflex while in his chair. If your dentist understands your issue, he can work with you to create a signal for when your gag reflex is becoming overwhelming, such as raising your left hand. Knowing that you can get a break when you need one can help significantly reduce gag-inducing anxiety.
2. Apply a topical anesthetic spray or gel
For many who struggle with gagging at the dentist, their gag reflex is triggered by instruments touching the roof of their mouth or the back of their tongue or throat. A topical anesthetic spray or gel can numb these areas and eliminate this common gag reflex trigger.
3. Allow you to receive treatment while seated
Dental work is most commonly performed while the patient is reclining in the dentist’s chair, but this position allows saliva and the various dental materials to flow down the throat and trigger the gag reflex. For certain types of dental work, your dentist may be able to sit you up during the procedure and allow you to angle your head forward, lessening your chances of gagging.
4. Use a rubber mouth dam
In cases where sitting up during the dental procedure is not possible, a rubber mouth dam can also help lessen a common cause of gagging by providing a barrier that prevents fluids and other dental debris from entering your mouth and throat.
5. Provide nitrous oxide or sedation
Particularly if your gag reflex is severe, receiving nitrous oxide–more commonly referred to as laughing gas–during dental work can significantly lower or eliminate your gagging. This effect is widely acknowledged and has been documented by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Speak with your dentist before your appointment to see if they can administer nitrous oxide to you during your dental procedure.
Briglia Dental Group is proud to offer sedation dentistry for patients with sensitive gag reflexes and other dental conditions. Dr. Ron has extensive experience in sedation dentistry and is happy to answer any of your common questions about it before any procedure.
Being prepared to address your gag reflex issues while in the dentist’s chair can go a long way towards reducing or eliminating your gag reflex, resulting in a much more pleasant dental visit. Regular dental visits are key to maintaining proper oral health, and overcoming your fear of gagging can help you keep your smile looking great. At Briglia Dental Group, our dentists are well-equipped to help you deal with your gag reflex issues.