Picture yourself seated comfortably in a chair at your dentist's office, your legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, your arms on the padded armrests, your head leaning against the cushioned headrest as you watch "The View" on the TV/monitor that's two feet in front of your face. The hygienist left you only a moment ago, having given you a number of injections near the upper molar that will be drilled, filled and fitted for a crown today. Now you're just waiting for the numbness to set in, something you've done many, many times before.
After a minute or two you notice that it's a little harder to get a good, deep breath. Another couple of minutes pass and you frown slightly as you realize you can't swallow without difficulty. The hygienist returns and asks how you're doing. Your voice squeaks a bit as you tell her you're getting uncomfortable, that it's hard to breathe, you can't swallow and you're beginning to feel like you're choking. She explains why you couldn't possibly be choking, even if it feels that way, and asks if you're getting numb. You assure her that you most definitely are numb.
She stays with you for a few more minutes--she wants you to be "good and numb"--and the dentist arrives. He smiles pleasantly and asks if you had a good Christmas. You don't want to tell him about all the family illnesses during the holidays, so you just mumble, "Yes, thanks" and launch right into telling him about the breathing and the swallowing and the choking sensation, and he smiles again and says you're doing fine, that those symptoms are a trick of the anesthetics.
You accept that explanation as they lean you back until your feet are elevated above your head, and the dentist begins to drill out the loose filling that has probably been in that tooth since you were a teen. You feel water spray against the roof of your mouth and drip into the back of your throat, but you can't swallow it, and the hygienist's suction tube isn't getting it all and, dammit, you are choking, whether they think so or not! You hear the choking noises coming out of your own throat and you see the dentist take a step back, a shiny chrome instrument held up in each hand. "Are you okay?" he asks, a look of alarm on his face.
"No!" you squeak out, and you start struggling to sit up, fighting to lean forward in that backward-tilted chair. Your hands are trembling, and suddenly your arms start shaking so wildly that you're in danger of knocking over the tray of sterile instruments. You don't realize you're crying until you feel tears roll out the corners of your eyes and down your cheeks, trickling slowly out from under the dark-tinted lenses they gave you to protect your eyes. The dentist raises your chair as quickly as he can, and the hygienist keeps repeating, "Breathe through your nose, breathe through your nose." Sitting erect helps you to do that. The dentist suggests that they leave you alone for a few minutes to give you time to calm down while the anesthesia wears off a bit. You're embarrassed. You've always been an easy, well-mannered patient until now.
You don't know how long they've been gone, but after awhile you realize that you're breathing regularly, you can swallow at will, the tears have dried, and you're watching TV again. You're still quite numb, but not as numb as you were earlier. The dentist and hygienist return, ascertain that you're feeling better, and begin again. The rest of the procedure goes as smoothly as it's always gone before. Afterwards they'll tell you to be careful, that you've chewed the inside of your anesthetized cheek, but everything else is fine. You feel much better and very much relieved. Still, you'll feel a little "off" for the rest of the day.
Does that sound like fun? It wasn't. This is what happened to me on Tuesday; I don't know why. I do remember a slight sense of constricted breathing the last time I had dental work done, but it wasn't enough to cause any worry or interfere with the procedure. I don't know what's different now.
I Googled, of course, as soon as I got home. Though I found a number of people who had experienced similar symptoms (and additional ones), there didn't seem to be a consensus among medical websites as to what caused the problems: overdose, accidental injection directly into the bloodstream, the patient's anxiety level... Who knows?
I've had so much dental work in my life that I haven't had any anxiety about it since childhood. I hope this one bad experience doesn't change that.