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Can meditation fix gag reflex?

Dental practitioners, who are in practice for quite some time, might have encountered patients with gag reflex. It all starts during dental procedure, where patients’ tongue suddenly lift. Before anything can be done, patient starts to sputter and choke severely.

There are several ways to help patient in this regard. This range from sedation to desensitization. But one strategy that is seldom used but can help both clinicians and patients in easiest ways is mindfulness.

Certain patients have strong gag reflex as compare to the rest. This can cause longer appointments with dentist and hence more treatment challenges. Along with all these issues, the main concern is the delay in patient’s health care. In fact, a recent review found that frequent gaggers are more likely to postpone dental care than non-gaggers.

The cause of gagging roots back to physiology. But it is also strongly linked to psychology. According to a latest research, gagging is associated with anxiety, which increases especially during dental visits.

Evidence based research has summarised that all instances of gagging don’t have pure physiological causes. Though it is an established fact that anatomical variability in the sizes and locations of the glossopharyngeal, vagus and trigeminal nerves contribute to cause a strong gag reflex. But in fact, there are two components to cause gag reflex. This include, anatomic or systemic physical disorders like sinusitis and psychological factors like anxiety.”

The advanced research has noted the correlation of dental anxiety and gagging. Although it’s an ongoing debate whether it’s the fear that causes gagging or vice versa. For instance, patients who didn’t previously have a gagging problem, might have developed one after a bad dental experience. Or perhaps, they might have a predisposition towards gagging that had nothing to do with the dental procedure.  

A variety of challenges are posed with patient’s strong reflex. Even a mild gagging problem, can make it difficult to take x-ray. The scheduled appointment can become longer depending on the severity of the gag reflex. At times it even need to be cancelled mid-way due to non-compliance from patient. The severe effect of gag reflex can also induce vomiting, which can compromise the sterile dental environment.

Dental clinicians always want to create a better experiences for gaggers. They have several options at their disposal to counter the issue of gag. But mindfulness meditation is an option that is not used much before. But in just through few simple exercises, a huge difference can be made both for dentist and patient.

Mindfulness meditation is defined a type of meditation that focuses attention to one’s present environment, detaching emotionally and mentally on the events that are happening around them. The goal is to induce a relaxation in brain activity. This creates a sense of focus and also separates one’s self from one’s thoughts and emotions.

Mindfulness meditation is an effective means of reducing stress and changing the brain’s structures which are responsible to create anxiety. For patients who are not amenable to sedation, mindfulness meditation can be an effective tactic to combat a strong gag reflex. If frequent gagging is correlated with dental anxiety, then it’s reasonable to hypothesize that mindfulness meditation may have an effect on gagging during dental appointments.

There’s currently no research to either establish a ‘direct’ causal link between meditation and reduced gagging. But desperate dentists and patients are finding different strategies that can work for different patients. A mindfulness exercise can helpful for mild gagging but it certainly takes practice.

Teaching mindfulness techniques in dental practice, doesn’t have to be time-consuming or challenging. With easy-to-teach mindfulness strategies available, patients can start using them immediately. While not all patients benefit from mindfulness techniques, it could be an effective strategy for many. This strategy is definitely less risky and less expensive. It all depends on the will of the patient to try new things.

The easiest way to start mindfulness techniques is with diaphragmatic breathing. Dentist can ask the patient to place one hand on the chest and one hand on the stomach, and then close the eyes and breathe into the stomach. Once the patient has a control on diaphragmatic breathing, they can slowly count to three on the inhale or exhale. This can turn out to be difficult for some patients. But the key here is to encourage patients and to approach the breathing in a non-judgmental way.

Much like other dental techniques, mindfulness exercises can become an effective part of patient education. This will help patients to have a more positive experience during appointments. More research is needed to investigate whether mindfulness meditation has the ability to resolve the gag reflex, but the available data suggests that at least, it can help anxious patients relax and create a more peaceful in-chair experience for dental clinician.

November 22, 2019

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