Your mouth has tons of nerves running all through it. Based on what your dentist needs to do, he will target specific nerves in your mouth with a local anesthetic. Novocain used to be the standard, but it hasn’t been used for many years. The most common anesthetic today is called lidocaine.
Local anesthetic is used to block sensation in the area of the mouth where the dentist is working so that he can drill out your cavities without causing much pain. Many targeted nerves where local anesthetic is used will also cause temporary muscle paralysis, which is why you may have a crooked smile after getting a cavity filled.
In order to feel pain, your body sends sodium into your nerves, which then send a message to your brain, telling it there is damage to those nerves. Local anesthetics act by blocking the channels that sodium typically travels through, thus temporarily inhibiting your ability to feel pain in those nerves.
After injection, the anesthetic is slowly absorbed and eventually cleared out of your system after just a couple hours, when your feeling and muscles return to normal function.
Many years ago, cocaine was one of the most commonly used local anesthetics. This practice was stopped as soon as we learned about the addictive qualities of cocaine. The local anesthetics that are used today have similar qualities to cocaine, minus the addictiveness. That is why they typically end in “-caine”, as is the case with lidocaine.
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