Having a dentist or hygienist’s hands in your mouth isn’t pleasant for anyone, but for people with a particularly strong gag reflex, dentist appointments can be extremely challenging. Those who struggle with this problem often have high anxiety levels around dental appointments, and sometimes even skip the dentist entirely — an impulse that can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, and other oral health problems in the long term.
If you have trouble at the dentist thanks to your overactive gag reflex, don’t worry! There are solutions.
How Does the Gag Reflex Work?
The pharyngeal reflex, more commonly called the gag reflex, is one of your body’s defense mechanisms. When something touches the back of the throat, tongue, or roof of the mouth, the throat contracts to prevent choking. Unfortunately, for people who have overactive gag reflexes, this response can occur much more often than it necessary or convenient.
The question or what causes a stronger than normal gag reflex is a difficult one to answer definitively. For some people, the strength of the reflex is a physiological trait, while for others it’s psychological. For yet others, it could be a little of both. In a vicious cycle, a naturally strong gag reflex could create anxiety around the dentist that makes you even more susceptible to gagging as a result.
What Can Be Done to Minimize It?
There are steps that both you and your dentist can take to minimize your gag reflex during cleanings, x rays, and other dental procedures. A good first step is working to manage your anxiety around your gag reflex. Here are a few techniques you can try to start:
- Relax. This seems overly simplified, but any technique aimed at helping you relax may help. Try practicing mindfulness meditation, learning deep breathing, or listening to soothing music.
- Breathe through the nose. Breathing through the mouth during a dental procedure can make your gag reflex easier to trigger.
- Don’t swallow. When your mouth generates saliva during a dental procedure, it can be tempting to try and swallow it, but doing so is likely to trigger your gag reflex.
If you know that you suffer anxiety around dental appointments, don’t be afraid to tell your dentist. The more they know, the more they can help.
Sedation Dentistry Could Be the Answer
If you can’t manage your gag reflex on your own, your dentist has some tools at his or her disposal, too. For example, they may try using a topical numbing solution to numb the back of your soft palate, to avoid triggering the reflex. And for people who need a guaranteed solution, sedation dentistry could be the answer.
Here’s how it works: Before your appointment, you’ll be given a prescription for a sedative (usually just one pill.) You’ll take the pill about thirty minutes before your dentist’s appointment. This means someone will have to drive you to and from the appointment. Throughout the appointment, you’ll be awake but will experience no anxiety. It’s safe, reliable, and can make dentistry easy for even the most anxious patients.