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Dental Services

Hypersensitive Gag Reflex

Contact: (0191) 232 5125 - Prosthodontics Department

IntroductionShow [+]Hide [-]

This information has been produced to help answer questions about your hypersensitive gag reflex and aims to answer any questions that you may have. If you require any further information please do not hesitate to ask the dental and nursing staff.

What is a gag reflex?
The gag reflex is a normal body reaction. It is important as it helps to prevent dangerous substances entering the upper airway and lungs. The gag reflex is started when certain areas of your mouth are touched. These include the roof of your mouth, the back of your tongue, the area around your tonsils and the back of your throat.

Why is my gag reflex hypersensitive?Show [+]Hide [-]

A hypersensitive gag reflex occurs when this normal reflex has become heightened for some reason. It may be that you have had experiences in the past that have caused particular areas of your mouth to become more likely to trigger the gag reflex. Some people can remember when they were first affected and it is commonly linked to a dental experience, for example, having an impression taken. A hypersensitive gag reflex is usually a learned or conditioned response, which occurs following a previous experience. We know this because you are able to tolerate things in your mouth and throat when eating without the gag reflex occurring.

What difficulties can a hypersensitive gag reflex cause?Show [+]Hide [-]

A hypersensitive gag reflex can give rise to a number of difficulties which include:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Having dental treatment, impressions and dental x rays
  • Using a denture

How can a hypersensitive gag reflex be treated?Show [+]Hide [-]

Treatment is simple. It is designed to reduce your hypersensitive reflex so that dental treatment can be carried out in the normal way, and for some people to help them wear dentures.

Your dentist will tell you about the two exercises outlined below. Try to carry these out each day and work at your own pace. Some people find they are able to feel an improvement quickly, for others it takes more practice. There may also be times when you have a relapse that may require additional time and effort. If your dentures are causing a gag reflex, your dentist may use a “training appliance” as the next step in the process. Your dentist will arrange a review appointment to monitor your progress.

Exercise 1
This will help you to relearn how to automatically protect your airway
1. Relax
2. Breathing through your nose, lift the back of your tongue up to touch the back of your palate. This means you are forming a seal at the back of your mouth.
3. Now try doing this again but open your mouth a comfortable amount.
4. Practice this sequence, increasing the time you are able to hold the position comfortably.

A good idea is to use this exercise to create a seal at the back when you are brushing your teeth.

Exercise 2
This is a direct desensitisation exercise
1. Relax
2. Take a small soft toothbrush and gently massage your palate just behind your upper front teeth for a few minutes. Practice this at least once a day. It is important to just massage to where you can comfortably tolerate the brush. We do not want you to stimulate your gag reflex as this will simply reinforce your hypersensitive response.
3. When you are comfortable with this, move the brush slightly further backwards over your palate and carry on massaging. Again we do not want you to stimulate your hypersensitive gag reflex, so if it feels too much just move the brush forwards again.
4. Practice this exercise until you are comfortable massaging the front half of your palate.

It is a good idea to carry out this exercise when you are relaxing in the evening, for example whilst watching TV.

Remember, without practice this treatment will not be effective. Making a simple diary of your exercises can be a useful way of monitoring your progress.

Further Information
If you have any problems or require further information, please telephone 0191 2325125 and ask the switchboard to transfer you to the Department of Prosthodontics, Dental Hospital, (between 9.00 am - 5.00 pm). At all other times, please contact your own Dentist.

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