Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, is an inhalant drug that is often used by dentists as a safe “local sedation method” for anxious, pain-sensitive patients.
It is similar to many medicinal drugs—it is not for everyone, it can be abused, and it has both pros and cons for someone with a history of substance abuse.
“A guide for the Practitioners” from the International Journal of Advanced Research, lists the following objectives for the use of nitrous oxide: “reduce untoward movement in reaction to treatment, enhance communication and patient cooperation, reduce gagging, and increase tolerance for longer appointments.”
What is Nitrous oxide abuse?
Often referred to colloquially as “whip-its,” involves the misuse of nitrous oxide, which is a colorless, odorless gas that is commonly used for various purposes, including medical and dental procedures, as well as in the culinary industry for whipped cream dispensers. However, when used recreationally and in excess, nitrous oxide can be harmful and pose significant health risks.
About Nitrous Oxide Abuse
The same article also explains some scenarios where they do not recommend using nitrous oxide, one of them being if the patient has “severe emotional disturbances or drug-related dependencies.” While it could certainly be interpreted as generalizing to list these two conditions as interchangeable, the warning is still there.
Even if laughing gas is used appropriately for dental procedures, it can still be abused like many other medicinal drugs. As a Colgate article explains, anesthesiologists support the use of nitrous gas because of how quickly its relaxing pleasurable feelings can take effect. While this is indeed effective for the dentistry business, it can also be a red flag for anyone with a drug abuse history.
Additional concerns include the normality of many people’s exposure to laughing gas through dentist appointments and the drug’s wide availability. Nitrous oxide can be purchased at grocery and baking stores, and sold as small cartridges that are intended for use in making whipped cream. The gas can be inhaled to seek a quick high.
Abusing nitrous in this way is extremely dangerous as it is not mixed with oxygen like it is at the dentist’s office. Not only can this lead to addiction, but it can also cause asphyxiation and lead to brain damage or even death.
Nitrous Oxide Abuse Among Dental Professionals
Like all medications, there is always the concern of ready accessibility to the professionals administering it. Maia Szalavits interviewed Dr. Dennis Bohlin, a dentist who has recovered from a nitrous addiction. “I just saw it like ‘Miller Time’ at the end of the day…It was there and available. I was stressed, and it seemed safer than alcohol. You’re not going to get a DWI while flying in the dental chair, so it was a drug of opportunity (Time).”
Szalavits explains that Bohlin sought out treatment when his addiction caused neuropathy (numbness and pain) and loss of fine motor coordination in his fingers and toes which “was obviously not conducive to dental practice.”
Although Bohlin knew dentists who had become immobile and who had passed away as consequences of their nitrous addictions, he felt rather alone when in support groups as few people shared his experience; “You get into a drug like that and you feel unique, and that mitigates against recovery because you feel weird.” Thankfully, he found recovery treatment where he felt comfortable and welcomed—even if the people he was sharing with could not relate to his specific substance use history—they could support him and relate to the process.
Bohlin’s nerves healed, and he has now been nitrous-free for almost 30 years. He was able to continue his practice and advocate for addiction recovery.
“Although addiction to nitrous is uncommon, its abuse can have serious consequences (Time).”
Here are some important points to consider about nitrous oxide abuse:
- Short-term effects: When inhaled, nitrous oxide can cause euphoria, dizziness, lightheadedness, and a sense of detachment from the surroundings. Some people may experience hallucinations or distorted perceptions. It can also lead to temporary oxygen deprivation, which may result in loss of consciousness or fainting.
- Long-term effects: Prolonged and frequent nitrous oxide abuse can have more severe consequences. Chronic use can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency, as nitrous oxide interferes with the absorption of this essential nutrient. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause nerve damage, leading to numbness and tingling in the extremities and other neurological problems.
- Asphyxiation risk: One of the most dangerous risks associated with nitrous oxide abuse is the potential for asphyxiation. When inhaled directly from a canister or balloon, nitrous oxide can displace oxygen in the lungs, leading to oxygen deprivation. This can result in serious injuries or even death due to lack of oxygen.
- Addiction and dependency: While nitrous oxide is not considered highly addictive, some individuals may develop psychological dependence on the drug. The desire to experience its euphoric effects can lead to repeated use and, in some cases, an inability to stop using despite negative consequences.
- Legal implications: In many places, the recreational use of nitrous oxide for abuse purposes is illegal. Possession, distribution, or use of nitrous oxide for non-medical purposes can lead to legal consequences.
- Social and psychological impacts: Nitrous oxide abuse can lead to impaired judgment, risky behaviors, and social isolation. Individuals who abuse the gas may neglect personal responsibilities, education, or work obligations, leading to further problems in their lives.
Alternatives to Nitrous Oxide
Asking not to use nitrous oxide due to a history of substance abuse or being in recovery is an essential step in advocating for your well-being during medical or dental procedures. If you have a history of substance use or are in recovery, laughing gas might not be wise for you, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid the dentist or endure excruciating pain. Check out these alternative relaxation and pain relief methods:
- Choose the right time and place: If you have an upcoming medical or dental appointment where nitrous oxide may be considered, it’s best to discuss your concerns in advance. Request a private meeting with your healthcare provider to have a focused conversation about your medical history and preferences.
- Be honest and upfront: Openly share your history of substance use disorder or recovery with your healthcare provider. Honesty is crucial for them to understand your situation fully and make appropriate decisions regarding your care.
- Explain your reasons: Describe why you prefer not to use nitrous oxide. Mention any triggers or concerns you have regarding substances, as well as any potential risks associated with nitrous oxide that may be problematic for someone with a history of addiction.
- Request alternative options: Express your desire to explore alternative anesthesia or sedation options that do not involve nitrous oxide. Ask your healthcare provider to discuss the available alternatives with you and their suitability for your specific medical or dental procedure.
- Provide relevant medical information: Share any relevant medical records or information about your history of substance use disorder (formerly known as substance abuse) or recovery, as this will help your healthcare provider make informed decisions about your anesthesia options.
- Seek support from your recovery network: If you have a support network for your recovery, consider bringing a trusted friend, family member, or sponsor with you to the appointment. Their presence can offer emotional support and reinforce your commitment to your recovery during the discussion.
- Advocate for yourself: Remember that you have the right to make informed decisions about your healthcare. If you feel that your healthcare provider is not taking your concerns seriously or is not offering suitable alternatives, don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion from another qualified professional.
- Follow medical advice: While advocating for alternatives to nitrous oxide is essential, it’s also crucial to be open to your healthcare provider’s recommendations. They will consider your safety and medical needs when suggesting alternative options, and it’s important to be willing to work together to find the best solution for your situation.
Seeking help for nitrous oxide addiction at Aviary Recovery
By communicating openly and proactively with your healthcare provider, you can ensure that your medical or dental procedure is conducted in a manner that aligns with your recovery goals and prioritizes your well-being.