Will you have an anesthesiologist for your wisdom teeth extraction surgery?

Probably not.

In the United States, oral surgeons perform most wisdom teeth extraction surgeries.  This is a very common surgery, with the operation performed on up to five million times in the United States each year. Most patients are healthy teenagers.  Wisdom teeth can be extracted under local anesthesia alone, but most patients and oral surgeons do not prefer this option. Oral surgeons perform wisdom teeth surgeries in their office operating rooms, and most oral surgeons manage the intravenous sedation anesthesia themselves, without the aid of an anesthesiologist.

Oral surgeons are trained in the airway management and general anesthesia skills necessary to accomplish this safely, and a nurse assists the oral surgeon in delivering sedative medications.  Oral surgeons must earn a license to perform general anesthesia in their office. To administer general anesthesia in an office, most oral surgeons complete at least three months of hospital-based anesthesia training. In most states, oral surgeons then undergo an in-office evaluation by a state dental-board-appointed examiner, who observes an actual surgical procedure during which general anesthesia is administered to a patient. It’s the examiner’s job to inspect all monitoring devices and emergency equipment, and to test the doctor and the surgical staff on anesthesia-related emergencies. If the examinee successfully completes the evaluation process, the state dental board issues the doctor a license to perform general anesthesia.  Note that even though the oral surgeon has a license to direct anesthesia, the sedating drugs he or she orders are often administered by a nurse who has no license or training in anesthesia.

In an oral surgeon’s office, general anesthesia for wisdom teeth extraction typically includes intravenous sedation with several drugs:  a benzodiazepine such as midazolam, a narcotic such as fentanyl or Demerol, and a hypnotic drug such as propofol, ketamine, and/or methohexital.  After the patient is asleep, the oral surgeon injects a local anesthetic such as lidocaine to block the superior and inferior alveolar nerves.  These local anesthetic injections render the mouth numb, so the surgeon can operate without inflicting pain.  Typically, no breathing tube is used and no potent anesthetic vapor such as sevoflurane is used.  The oral surgeon may supplement intravenous sedation with inhaled nitrous oxide.

The oral surgeon has all emergency airway equipment, breathing tubes, and emergency drugs available, but these are rarely used.

The safety record for oral surgeons using these methods seems excellent.  My review of the National Institutes of Health website PubMed reveals very few instances of death related to wisdom teeth extraction.  Recent reports include one patient who died in Germany due to a heart attack after his surgery (Kunkel M, J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 2007 Sep;65(9):1700-6.  Severe third molar complications including death-lessons from 100 cases requiring hospitalization).  A second patient died in Japan because of a major bleed in his throat occluding trachea, one day after his surgery (Kawashima W, Forensic Sci Int. 2013 May 10;228(1-3):e47-9. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2013.02.019. Epub 2013 Mar 26. Asphyxial death related to postextraction hematoma in an elderly man).

Most oral surgeons have no interest in publishing their mishaps or complications, so the medical literature is not the place to search for data on oral surgery deaths. Deaths that occur during or after wisdom teeth extraction are sometimes reported in the lay press.  In April 2013, a 24-year-old healthy man began coughing during his wisdom teeth extraction in Southern California, and went into cardiac arrest.  He was transferred to a hospital, where he died several days later. (http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/national-international/NATL—SD-24-Year-Old-Man-Dies-Following-Wisdom-Teeth-Removal-Surgery-201239551.html)

In 2011, a Baltimore-area teen died during wisdom teeth extraction. The family’s malpractice claim was settled out of court in 2013. (http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/bs-md-ho-olenick-settlement-20130403,0,3496441.story).

Every general anesthetic carries a small risk, even when the patient is young and healthy, such as these two cases of death following wisdom teeth extractions.  All acute medical care involves attending to the A – B – C ‘s of Airway, Breathing, and Circulation.  During surgery for wisdom teeth extraction, the oral surgeon is operating in the patient’s mouth. Surgery in the mouth increases the chances that the operation will interfere with the patient’s Airway or Breathing.  The surgeon’s fingers, surgical instruments, retractors, and gauze pads crowd into the airway, and may influence breathing.  If the patient’s breathing becomes obstructed, altering the position of the jaw, the tongue, or the neck is more challenging than when surgery does not involve the airway.

I’ve attended to hundreds of patients for dental surgeries.  For dental surgery in a hospital setting, anesthesiologists commonly insert a breathing tube into the trachea after the induction of general anesthesia.  A properly positioned tracheal tube can assure the Airway and Breathing for the duration of the surgery.  Because an anesthesiologist is not involved with performing the surgery, his or her attention can be 100% focused on the patient’s vital signs and medical condition.  When anesthesiologists are called on to perform general anesthesia for wisdom teeth extraction in a surgeon’s office, we typically use a different anesthetic technique. Usually there is no anesthesia machine to deliver potent inhaled anesthetics, therefore intravenous sedation is the technique of choice.  Usually no airway tube is inserted.  A typical technique is a combination of intravenous midazolam, fentanyl, propofol, and/or ketamine.  Oxygen is administered via the patient’s nostrils throughout the surgery. The adequacy of breathing is continuously monitored by both pulse oximetry and end-tidal carbon dioxide monitoring.  The current American Society of Anesthesiologist Standards for Basic Anesthetic Monitoring (July 1, 2011) state that “Every patient receiving general anesthesia shall have the adequacy of ventilation continually evaluated. … Continual monitoring for the presence of expired carbon dioxide shall be performed unless invalidated by the nature of the patient, procedure or equipment.”

The motto of the American Society of Anesthesiologists is “Vigilance.”  If the patient’s oxygen saturation and/or end-tidal carbon dioxide numbers begin to decline, an anesthesiologist will act immediately to improve the A – B – C ‘s of Airway, Breathing, and Circulation.

Let’s return to our opening question: Will you have an anesthesiologist for your wisdom teeth extraction surgery?  I cannot show you any data that an anesthesiologist provides safer care for wisdom teeth surgery than if an oral surgeon performs the anesthesia. The majority of wisdom teeth extractions in the United States are performed without an anesthesiologist, and reported complications are rare.  If you want an anesthesiologist, you need to make this clear to your oral surgeon, and ask him to make the necessary arrangements.  If you do choose to enlist a board-certified anesthesiologist for your wisdom teeth extractions, know that your anesthesia professional has completed a three or four year training program in his field, and is expert in all types of anesthesia emergencies.  As a downside, you will be responsible for an extra bill for the professional fee of this anesthesiologist.

Whether an anesthesiologist or an oral surgeon attends to your anesthesia, the objectives are the same:  Each will monitor the A – B – C ‘s of your Airway, Breathing, and Circulation to keep you oxygenated and ventilated, so you can wake up and leave that dental office an hour or so after your wisdom teeth extraction surgery has concluded.


Introducing …,  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a legal mystery. Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

On October 2, 2014 THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN became the world’s  #1 bestselling anesthesia Kindle book on Amazon.com.

The first four chapters are available for free at Amazon. Read them and you’ll be hooked! To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:



In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.

Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre.

TwinCities.com PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press mgrossman@pioneerpress.com, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”

Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!

Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.

5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”


allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick novak.com by clicking on the picture below:




  1. When IV sedation is used, is the patient asleep or just can’t remember afterwards? I had my wisdom teeth removed this morning, and I can’t remember anything after the iv went in until I my surgeon was putting in the last stitch and I was having a panic attack (and he was yelling at me to calm down, which is literally the worst thing you can do to someone having a panic attack) and then I vaguely remember them removing the things in my mouth and then the next thing I remember it was just the nurse in the room and she was taking off the bib and getting me ready to leave. I also had a hard time walking to the car and had to have my mom and the nurse help me. Was I put to sleep, or just made to forget so I would think I was asleep? Thanks!


    1. Per my blog entry on wisdom teeth anesthesia, most wisdom teeth extractions are done with intravenous sedation plus local anesthesia, with no anesthesiologist present. Patients sleep though most of these cases, but may wake at times as you did, because sedation is not a guaranteed general anesthesic.


  2. It should be pointed out Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeons undergo far more than 3 months of anesthesia training. Their time on the anesthesia service acting as a CA-1 resident is actually 4-5 months, with a push to make it 5-6 months. Generally at least one of these months is spent doing solely pediatric anesthesiology. Furthermore, this training is generally done in the PGY-1 year such that the Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery resident then spends their additional years of residency administering outpatient anesthesia in the oral surgery clinics during procedures, just as they will do in private practice.


  3. To add a little more background,

    Your Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon (Oral Surgeon) has much more extensive training than your average dentist. All undergo an additional 4-6yrs of post-doctorate training (some involving medical school leading to a MD). The current minimum is 5 months of training under the Anesthesia department alongside their colleagues administering general anesthesia, sedation and to prepare them for everything that could arise in the office setting. As previously mentioned, the remaining time of their residency they are continually using their skills for outpatient anesthesia. Immediately following residency they will have been certified in BLS, ACLS, PALS, and ATLS and have given hundreds of anesthetics. Due to the nature of their surgical head and neck training, they should be capable to secure a surgical airway in extremely unlikely event that it may be necessary. None of this can be expected or is the standard of others who may offer to perform the same service. All of this information should be factored into a patient’s decision when they decide who will removing their wisdom teeth and providing their anesthesia.


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