Using nitrous oxide (commonly called “laughing gas”) in dentistry is so popular today that we often forget it wasn’t always an option for patients. At Greenville Family Dentistry, we don’t like imagining a world without sedation dentistry – because we see its benefits firsthand with our patients – but the notion did get us thinking: where did laughing gas dentistry come from anyway? When was it invented? Where? Why? And by whom?
After doing a little digging, we learned that the pioneer of nitrous oxide dentistry was a man named Horace Wells, a dentist from Hartford, Connecticut. The first known usage of nitrous oxide for dentistry dates back to December 1844, when Wells and his wife Elizabeth attended a “Grand Exhibition” of the effects of nitrous oxide. The exhibition was led by a man named Gardner Colton, a lecturer and founder of the Colton Dental Association.
At some point during the exhibition, Wells met a man who had injured his legs without knowing it – a result of being under the influence of nitrous oxide. Because Wells was concerned about the pain and discomfort of invasive dental procedures, he quickly realized that nitrous oxide might be useful in dentistry. After making the realization, Wells made plans with Colton to conduct a trial of the gas the very next day.
The First Attempts with Laughing Gas
The next morning Wells underwent a tooth extraction, while sedated by nitrous oxide, and the extraction went as planned. After several more successful trials in the following weeks, Wells traveled to Boston “in a fateful attempt to convince the medical and dental profession of the efficacy of nitrous oxide.” *
After gathering several prominent medical professionals together to witness the demonstration – and one willing medical student who agreed to have a tooth pulled while under nitrous oxide – the procedure took a sudden turn for the worse when the student yelped in apparent pain. Many of the onlookers took the demonstration to be a failure, and Wells, disheartened by the outcome, returned to Hartford the next day.
From Ridicule to Recognition
The reviews of Well’s demonstration appear to have been mixed. Some onlookers considered it a success because, upon returning to complete consciousness, the medical student said that he had felt no pain whatsoever. However, one onlooker said, “Dr. Wells administered the gas, and extracted a tooth, but the patient screamed from pain, and the spectators laughed and hissed.” *
According to Wells himself: “The patient experienced some pain, but later stated that the pain was ‘not as much as usually attends the operation.’ Wells attributed the failure of complete insensibility to the fact that he had withdrawn the bag (of nitrous oxide) too soon. Some observers considered it a ‘humbug affair.’ ” *
Shortly after the demonstration, Wells returned to Hartford where he fell ill and eventually suspended his dental practice. In the weeks before his death, the Parisian Medical Society made Wells an honorary member of their organization, recognizing him as the inventor of anesthesia. Not bad for a man who felt that his contribution to the medical community had largely been ridiculed and rejected.
The Safety of Laughing Gas Sedation
As you can imagine, laughing gas dentistry has come a long way since 1844. Our team has the knowledge and experience to “dial in” the level of calm and relaxation you experience while in the chair. Many patients begin feeling the effects of laughing gas – often described as tingling, floating and euphoric – in as little as 30 seconds after breathing the gas. From there, we closely monitor the levels to ensure your health and safety.
Many people actually prefer nitrous oxide over other methods of sedation, such as IV sedation, because they maintain a greater sense of control throughout the procedure. With laughing gas, even if you don’t remember the procedure or only remember portions of it, you are still “awake” the entire time and can respond to our questions and requests.
The other reason people like laughing gas sedation: unlike IV sedation, you can recover from its effects quickly and do not typically need a caregiver to drive you home, which makes scheduling your dental appointments even easier.
Laughing Gas Dentistry for Children
Because nitrous oxide acts as a sedative, many people believe that it’s not safe for children. However, laughing gas is actually a very safe – and very effective – way to help children relax before and during their dental appointments. Not only is it easy to administer and monitor, it’s also less intimidating for young children – it’s as simple as placing a small mask over the nose and asking him or her to breathe naturally. Kid-sized masks often come in bright colors and yummy-smelling scents, so it’s actually fun for most kids!
Have You Tried Laughing Gas Dentistry?
While many of our patients wouldn’t see us without undergoing some form of sedation, other patients never enjoy the benefits of sedation because they never ask us about it! If you experience anxiety or dread before or during your dental appointments, be sure to ask us about how we use laughing gas safely and effectively to promote feelings of calm, relaxation and well-being. To learn more about it, contact us today with your questions.
While writing this article, we referenced “Horace Wells’ Demonstration of Nitrous Oxide in Boston,” an article first published in November 2013 by Anesthesiology, a leading anesthesiology journal. The full article can be read here.