Millions of people regularly take anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications (sometimes called “blood thinners”) to help prevent heart attack and stroke, and to manage a variety of medical conditions including cardiac arrhythmia and stent placement. While these drugs have proven, life-saving benefits, they can also cause side effects such as increased bleeding. So it may be a cause for concern if you're taking one of them and you need to have a dental procedure.
Anticoagulants are among the more widely used pharmaceuticals today, particularly for heart patients. Some common prescription anticoagulants include heparin, warfarin (Coumadin and generics), clopidogrel (Plavix) and dabigatran etexilate (Pradaxa). Regular aspirin and NSAIDS (like Advil) also have anticoagulant properties. The purpose of anticoagulant medications is to keep the blood from clotting (clumping together) as readily as it normally does; this reduces the chance of a clot forming inside a blood vessel, which could lead to a stroke or heart attack.
If you are taking one or more of these medications, it will take longer for any type of bleeding to stop. For some dental or surgical procedures, that's a factor that must be considered. The most important thing you should do is inform your dentist right away if you are taking any kind of anticoagulant or antiplatelet medication — especially if you have just started taking it. The name and dosage of your medication will be noted in your records, and your cardiologist (or other specialist) will be consulted if necessary, to determine what's best for you.
While each patient is different, there are some generally accepted guidelines for having dental work while taking anticoagulant medications. If the drug is being taken on a temporary basis (after knee replacement, for example) then the safest choice might be to put off non-essential dental procedures. However, in many cases it's entirely possible to have needed work done while taking anticoagulants. In each situation, the risk of increased bleeding must be balanced against the chance that going off the medication could cause more serious problems.
A number of studies have shown that for many common dental procedures — cleanings, fillings and restorations, for example — it's safer to continue taking anticoagulant medications than to stop, even temporarily. That's because it is generally possible to control bleeding with local measures (such as biting down on gauze), using hemostatic devices and minimally invasive surgical techniques. Scheduling dental work for early in the day and allowing plenty of time for rest afterwards also provides an opportunity to control any bleeding that does occur.
In some cases, more extensive dental procedures such as tooth extraction or implant placement may be recommended for people taking anticoagulants. As always, the potential risks and benefits of stopping the anticoagulant medication must be carefully weighed. To help in the decision-making process, one or more diagnostic blood tests, such as prothrombin time (PT) or International Normalized Ratio (INR), may be ordered. Then a judgment can be made, based on the test results and on clinical experience.
While it's extremely rare for common dental procedures to cause potentially life-threatening complications, it makes sense to take as few chances as possible. That's why you should tell us about any medications you may be taking, including herbs and vitamins. While taking anticoagulants doesn't prevent you from having dental work, it's important to share information about your medications so you can get the best results from your treatment.