By Michelle Fletcher, B.A.
For many Americans, a visit to the dentist causes anxiety, pain, and fear. Many health experts estimate that nearly half of all adults will not seek dental care out of fear of going to the dentist. Some patients are particularly sensitive to dental equipment, which may cause them to gag uncontrollably when an instrument such as a mirror or drill is placed in the mouth. Others are so terrified, either due to a bad prior experience or to stories they've heard about bad dental experiences, that the mere thought of dental treatment causes them to gag even before any work has begun.
“The gagging reflex is a psychological reaction which safeguards the airway from foreign bodies ,” said Janice Fisk at the Department of Sedation and Special Care Dentistry in London in a recent article in the British Dental Journal. “In some people, this response is exaggerated to the extent that the acceptance/provision of dental treatment is not possible.”
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been making headlines in the past few years for its contribution to dentistry – namely using acupuncture to treat patients suffering from serious gag reflexes at dental offices. Studies have asserted that acupuncture, when applied to dentistry, is a safe, cheap, quick, and relatively non-invasive technique to control the gag reflex in patients.
“Acupuncture needles were inserted into a specific anti-gagging point on each ear, manipulated briefly and left in situ ,” said Fiske about her study. “Dental treatment was then carried out and the effectiveness of the acupuncture in preventing gagging was assessed. After treatment, the needles were removed and the patient discharged. All acupuncture was carried out by a dentist trained in its use.”
Results were quite positive: “Dental treatment could be carried out in all cases and at all visits ,” Fiske said. In another study at Weston Park Hospital in Sheffield, UK, doctors observed similar results. “Before acupuncture, the patients that had moderate to severe [gag reflexes] and after acupuncture the [gag reflex] had reduced to a level which only complicated dental treatment slightly. ”
“Ear acupuncture was successful in controlling the gag reflex,” concluded Fisk in her article. “It is a safe, quick, inexpensive, and relatively noninvasive technique. ” Including simple acupuncture techniques in dental medicine can greatly increase not only the effectiveness of treatment performed, but also decrease anxiety and fear in the minds of patients.
Fisk J, Dickinson C. The role of acupuncture in controlling the gagging reflex using a review of ten cases. British Dental Journal. 2001 Nov 24;191(10):537.
Rosted P., et al. The use of acupuncture in controlling the gag reflex in patients requiring an upper alginate impression: an audit. British Dental Journal. 2006 Dec 9;201(11):721-5.