How Does It Work?

Author: Dr. Sarah Mischo, DMD

Dr. Andrew from {PRACTICE_NAME}As a kid, I loved watching the Food Network show “Unwrapped.” This show went behind the scenes and showed how different treats such as M&M’s, Pez, and potato chips were made. I always found it fascinating to learn how the items we see on the store shelf become what they are through the manufacturing process.

Over the weekend, I was thinking about this show and how it relates to the world of dentistry. When a patient is being seen for treatment, local anesthetic is more often than not needed to get the patient comfortable so the procedure can be completed. I was thinking how often I have to give local anesthetic, and realized most people probably don’t fully understand how it actually makes them numb. Continue reading if you are the type of person who is curious and likes to know the details of how things work.

Every inch of our body is full of nerves–bundles of individual, highly-specialized cells called neurons that are responsible for sending messages to our brain regarding different stimuli. One such stimulus is pain, and specialized neurons called “nociceptive” neurons are responsible for transmitting this important signal which can help our bodies detect and avoid injury.

Each individual neuron transmits signals up and down its length through the use of microscopic gates or “channels” that allow different electrolytes (salt ions) to flow into and out of the neuron. One of the most important of these channels are sodium-potassium voltage gated channels. Pumps within the wall of each neuron maintain lots of sodium on the outside of the cell and lots of potassium on the inside when the neuron is inactive. But when there is a stimulus, the neuron opens these sodium-potassium gates, allowing sodium to rush into the cell an action potential or “signal” results. This signal tells the brain “Hey!! There is something going on here.” Local anesthetics block this sodium influx into the cell preventing that “signal” or action potential from being sent to the brain, causing the patient to feel calm and comfortable instead of feeling pain or discomfort during a procedure.

So, while, your dental visit and the production of your favorite potato chips might not have too much in common, now you know that salt is an important part in both processes!