Amy Norton, British Dental Journal
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – People who gag at the very thought of going to the dentist may find some hope in acupuncture, if they do not mind having needles stuck on their ears. British researchers say ear acupuncture can quell patients’ gag reflexes during dental procedures.
In a study of 1 0 patients whose gagging kept them out of the dentist’s chair, investigators found that giving them acupuncture allowed the patients to get through procedures ranging from tooth extraction to tongue biopsy.
“Ear acupuncture was successful in controlling the gag reflex,” the authors write in the June 9th issue of the British Dental Journal. ” It is a safe, quick, inexpensive and relatively non-invasive technique.”
Dr. Janice Fiske, a consultant in special care dentistry at King’s College in London, led the study.
The ancient tradition of acupuncture holds that tiny, strategically placed needles help ease pain and discomfort. It is an increasingly popular form of alternative care that is wending its way into mainstream medicine, with research suggesting it helps relieve arthritis, back pain and migraine, as well as dental pain.
In the current study, Fiske and colleague C. Dickinson hypothesized that acupuncture could help problem gaggers cope with dental care. According to the researchers, there is a “specific, recognized anti-gagging point on the ear.”
Among the IO patients, severe gagging had caused two to avoid dental care altogether, and six could receive treatment only if they were sedated.
With the help of ear acupuncture, however, all got through their dental procedures, Fiske and Dickinson report. The procedure, they note, added about 2 or 3 minutes to patients’ time in the chair.
Acupuncture may not be for everyone, and the authors point out that it is “one of a range of treatment options that can be employed in an effort to control gagging.” These include relaxation techniques, sedation and even hypnosis.
Exactly how acupuncture might ease the gag reflex is unclear. Fiske told Reuters Health that the needle stimulation may block certain nerve pathways. One of the main nerves involved in swallowing, she explained, also supplies the part of the ear that houses the anti-gagging acupuncture point.
She added that acupuncture can also take the place of local anesthesia in dental procedures, although this is not a common use since its numbing effects take a while to set in and are not as reliable as standard anesthesia.
And although acupuncture has proven effective in easing patients’ discomfort, Fiske and Dickinson note that more research is needed to see whether acupuncture’s benefits owe much to the power of suggestion–or the “placebo effect.”