Nitrous Oxide at the Dentist

Nitrous oxide was first used in dentistry in Hartford Connecticut in 1844. It is still in common use for dental surgery. As a mild anesthetic, you may be offered nitrous in lieu of, or in addition to, novocaine. At the dentist's office one never receives 100% nitrous. Instead you breathe a mix of nitrous and oxygen -- generally 70% N2O to 30% oxygen. This is equivalent to the amount of oxygen in room air -- but the nitrogen has been replaced by nitrous oxide.

Here are four stories of people's experiences with Nitrous at the dentist's office

I won't go near nitrous...

"I won't go near nitrous these days and choose to go with the novocaine shots. Last time I used gas was when I was 9 or 10. Even back then, I rarely went to the dentist, so I suppose I must has looked pretty scared. They were real nice to me and gave me headphones to listen to music. After gassing me up for a good 10-20 minutes, I started to hallucinate a big vortex spinning in front of me with the band member's heads floating around it and singing to me. I really started to freak out when out of the edges of the gas mask I could see the dentist and his assistant with huge distorted smiles on their faces, telling me to open my mouth wider. It didn't help that they were sticking tons of shit into my mouth. I ripped the mask off and ran out of the room.

I found out many years later that the dentist lost his license for using the nitrous recreationally. I suspect that the nitrous had been left at his preferred setting."

Name withheld by request.

I've used nitrous twice...

"I've used nitrous twice, both times in medical settings. The first time was when I got my wisdom teeth out, all four at once. They ran me on nitrous for about fifteen minutes (is what it felt like, I was WAY WAY WAY in happyland) and didn't even care when they ran an IV into my left arm. I remember a few seconds after the IV was in, I felt like I was on a submarine ride to the beginning of time, it was the greatest thing. And then I passed out and they did their dentist stuff. I later asked them what the IV was and they said it was Valium and Morphine. I now highly recommend this dentist to anyone that needs wisdom teeth out. They even supplied me with a wheelchair so I could get my drooling self pushed to the car, after my repeated (slurred) assertions that "Icnwalk, Icnwalk, doneedawhlchr...."

The second time was getting my first cavity filled. That was great fun. They left me on nitrous for a nice long time and then when I didn't know what planet I was on they shot me full of novocain. They told me later that I asked them five times if I could buy some nitrous."


Nitrous makes me nauseous...

"Nitrous makes me extremely nauseous. I once had a dentist who forced it on me despite my protests (my mother insisted I go, even though I protested that he was a quack). Served him right when I "filled" his mask, he wasn't laughing so hard when I escaped his office. His partner was the guy who got the first-ever artificial heart."

Name withheld by request.

It started with...

"It started with the foul-tasting anesthetic spray. (Well, it really started with the panoramic x-ray, but that's boring. "Bite down on this, hold onto these, breathe in, and swallow...") By the time they asked me if I wanted nitrous oxide, it was already difficult to speak due to rubbery lips and tongue. I was reluctant, but decided to give it a try.

Lying down on the operating table. They strapped a tube over my nose, and I felt panic as I came close to fainting, and breathed through my mouth for a while until the world was visible again. Fading vision was replaced by a feeling of detachment, tingling and slight numbness in my arms and legs, and a loud buzzing-humming-rushing noise which soon either faded away or I learned to ignore it. I then spent almost the entire time of surgery planning how I would describe what nitrous consciousness is like.

It felt a lot like lucid dreaming, or like the half-dreaming state on lazy weekend mornings. There was a similar sense of distance from my perceptions. I could feel, hear, see everything, but it just wasn't my main concern. After I had been breathing N2O for a few minutes, the dentist came in to inject the deep anesthetics. He warned me that it would hurt (I could barely hear him through the haze) and it did, and I thought yup, that hurts.

My top stream-of-consciousness -- the talking-to-myself kind of consciousness -- was much more lucid than in a dream, pretty close to wakefulness... but not quite there. I felt that I could think almost as clearly as ever, though I was aware of being easily distracted (like when half asleep), and obviously the most important effect was the lack of interest in the physical world. Every once in a while I checked the clock (over the foot of the bed), partly to check my perception of time (usually about the same as normal consciousness, except when I got distracted) and partly just to make sure I could still focus my eyes. I couldn't converge the double image, though. I also wiggled my feet and fingers whenever they started to feel like they weren't attached any more.

At some point the surgeon removed my two upper wisdom teeth. I never noticed... it must have been easy, so I may have missed it in the much more complex process of smashing the two lower teeth to bits with hammers, drills, and levers. Whenever I smelled burning enamel or heard the sharp CRACK of another chunk being pried off, I thought "I sure am glad I opted for nitrous. This wouldn't have hurt much, but it would have scared the heck out of me. As it is, I just don't care." The surgeon frequently made requests... open wider... turn your head this way... that way... they seemed to drift into my consciousness from a distance, and though I was intellectually aware that he was right there, it didn't feel that way. I wondered what would happen if I refused to obey-- would he think I had fallen asleep?-- but I never refused. I wondered what would happen if I bit down on the drill-- but I never did. I wondered if people under nitrous would be more susceptible to suggestion--like hypnosis--because I had heard that people following hypnotic suggestions had similar thoughts: "I could refuse to obey... but I don't feel like it." I had all these thoughts and metathoughts--including this one--while under the gas, which is why I say I was nearly lucid the whole time. I was always aware that I was drugged, and that I felt lucid, and that it was possible that what I thought was lucidity at the time really wasn't. But on reflection, breathing plain old oxygen and nitrogen now, I don't think I was deceiving myself.

When I thought of it, I tried little tests of my consciousness. Could I recite pi to 16 digits? I could. Could I sing my favorite rounds to myself? I could and did, but one round got fixed in my mind and didn't go away until I'd been breathing atmosphere for fifteen minutes. I was also aware that I was having difficulty thinking of tests, and wondered if that itself was a symptom. I wish now that I had thought of testing my visual and aural imagination, which is always much more powerful in a half-dream state. I thought, if they put this stuff in the air in long plane trips, they would seem to go by a lot faster! I wondered if I would seek out illicit nitrous trips in the future, and eventually decided that I probably wouldn't, because the chief attraction was in avoiding confronting a very unpleasant situation (oral surgery). It wouldn't be good for parties, and I couldn't imagine bringing it with me to wait in line at the bank or some such.

I was hoping to write more about that particular feeling- which is what makes it such a good surgery drug- but I'm having trouble figuring out how to describe it. Although I've said I was almost fully aware of everything that happened, that's obviously not really true. After all, I missed two extractions entirely. I felt very sleepy the whole time (a rather different feeling from the near-fainting when I first started the gas), and several times realized that the reason I was having trouble seeing was that my eyes were nearly closed. I fought against sleep; I didn't want to be unable to respond to the surgeon's instructions. I may have missed a lot during these episodes. I know from my clock-watching that I never lost self-awareness for more than 3 or 4 minutes at a time. I think the most useful thing I can say about nitrous consciousness is that my internal mental life became much more important than my physical state, like reading an absorbing book while the radio is chattering away in the background.

It took at least 20 minutes after being disconnected from the gas (and I felt a definite pang of regret when they took the tube off my nose... is it over ALREADY? Total gas time about 25 minutes) before I felt like I was mostly free of nitrous consciousness. Some of that may have been the influence of the anesthetics, though, which took over three hours to wear off completely. As I mentioned before, I tried to keep careful track of time, mostly to prove that I could. To my great regret, I forgot to ask in advance if I could keep the extracted teeth, and they were medical waste by the time I got around to it. Maybe they'll wash up on the Monterey coast sometime soon.

Later I took a codeine pill and spent the next few hours fainting and vomiting, but that's another story. No more codeine for me.

Name withheld by request.