1880 marked a pivotal year in dental work -- it introduced the use of general anesthesia (in the form of chloroform, though it has many other shapes) to the general public, making it that much easier to sit through a tooth extraction or a filling and still walk out of the dentist's office like Pinon Hills Dental with a bright, genuine smile. However, while a lot is known about how to relieve tooth pain, not a lot is known about the processes in the brain that trigger these painful reactions in the first place, and what they do under anesthesia. If you're curious about what your brain's actually doing when you hear the whirrr of the dentist's drill (and when the needle goes into your gum), then here's what you need to know.
Fact #1: Pain begins in the brain
Your brain's pain receptors aren't just clustered on one side of the gray matter -- they're actually interspersed throughout many areas, often coupling with emotional response neurons. This tie to your emotions explains why you tend to associate painful experiences with a heightened dislike of the person inflicting the pain, and why pain tends to be completely subjective among humans. However, it doesn't explain why anesthesia dulls pain, and why it doesn't completely incapacitate your entire brain -- you keep breathing, swallowing, and pumping blood even while under general anesthetic.
Fact #2: The brain experiences both a reduction and an increase of activity
After you've been anesthetized, you begin to stop feeling pain and enjoy the numbness (with slight 'pressure', of course). But it turns out it's not just your anxiety levels settling down after the anesthesia kicks in -- it's also your brain. In a recent study in March of 2015, researchers figured out that, with the introduction of anesthesia into the system, the brain experiences a reduction in activity within the part of the brain called the posterior insult. Adding to that is the fact that you experience better connection to your midbrain -- the part of your brain that deals with your vision, breathing, and temperature regulation, among other things.
Fact #3: There's no tricking the brain with tooth pain
In the above study, the researches found out that this reaction of your brain is placebo-proof -- those subjects which were given an injection without any anesthesia didn't experience the same reactions in their brains. While this might seem obvious, the power of the brain to defy a placebo is well documented under the name "placebo effect." The fact that anesthesia -- and only anesthesia -- calmed down the brain's pain receptors and increased power to essential life forces like breathing says that, while scientists might not know everything about the brain, they know enough to recommend you take the option for anesthesia for your next cavity. When it comes to dental pain, it has been proven that the brain doesn't lie.