What is the Difference Between Intravenous Conscious Sedation, Oral Sedation, and General Anesthesia?

Sedation options in dentistry have come a long way to help patients manage fear, anxiety and pain.

Photo of woman under sedation at the dentist - Sedation options

The levels of sedation include:

  • Minimal sedation — you are awake but relaxed.
  • Moderate sedation (formerly called “conscious sedation”) — you may slur your words when speaking and not remember much of the procedure.
  • Deep sedation — you are on the edge of consciousness but can still be awakened.
  • General anesthesia — you are completely unconscious.

What Sedation Options Are Used in Dentistry?

The following types of sedation are used in dentistry:

Inhaled Minimal Sedation
You breathe nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas.” Nitrous gas is combined with oxygen through a mask that’s placed over your nose. The gas helps you relax. Your dentist can control the amount of sedation you receive, and the gas tends to wear off quickly. This is the only form of sedation where you may be able to drive yourself home after the procedure.

Oral Sedation
Depending on the total dose given, oral sedation can range from minimal to moderate. For minimal sedation, you take a pill. The endodontist will make a determination of the best medication for you after a review of your medical history. The pill will make you drowsy, although you’ll still be awake. A larger dose may be given to produce moderate sedation. This is the type of anesthesia most commonly associated with sedation dentistry. Some people become groggy enough from moderate oral sedation to actually fall asleep during the procedure. Generally, a patient is easily wakened once the procedure is completed.

IV Moderate Sedation
You receive the sedative drug through a vein, so it goes to work more quickly. This method allows the dentist to continually adjust the level of sedation.

Deep Sedation and General Anesthesia
You will get medications that will make you either almost unconscious or totally unconscious, or deeply asleep, during the procedure. While under general anesthesia, you cannot easily be awakened until the effects of the anesthesia wear off or are reversed with medication.

Regardless of which type of sedation you receive, the endodontist will typically administer a local anesthetic to ensure adequate pain control and to prevent any discomfort.