Does the sound of a dental instrument make your skin crawl? Does the scent of antiseptic make you want to run for the hills? Are you putting off routine maintenance of your oral health because the thought of sitting in a dental chair makes you uncomfortable?
Are you afraid of your dentist?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are hardly alone. Estimates say 75% of U.S. adults have some degree of fear associated with the dentist, ranging from mild jitters to extreme anxiety.
The most extreme cases are classified as dental phobia (also called dentophobia and odontophobia), in which the mere thought of sitting in a dental chair or receiving dental care causes sheer panic. While only about 5-10 percent of U.S. adults have dental phobia, the condition is serious enough to have horrible reprecussions for the affected person’s oral health.
The Difference Between Anxiety and Phobia
Figuring out whether your anxiety is run-of-the-mill or symptomatic of a more serious phobia can be difficult. For example, being anxious about receiving a shot or the pain associated with some dental procedures is not at all uncommon or irrational. This alone wouldn’t constitute a true dental phobia.
But when does that fear become “excessive and unreasonable?” There are several symptoms to look for if you’re concerned you are more scared than the average person when it comes to dental care, including:
- Anxiety leading up to your dental appointment, to the point where you find it hard to focus or lose sleep over it
- Intensifying anxiety while waiting for the appointment in the office
- Negative reactions to dental reminders and cues, e.g. crying, feeling nauseated, sudden increase in heart rate, and perspiration
- Difficulty breathing during the appointment when the dental professional uses his or her dental tools in your mouth
What Makes People Afraid of Dental Care?
There are many reasons why a person might experience fear related to dental care. Most frequently, a negative previous experience with visiting the dentist is the cause of anxiety, particularly if it happened as a child. Hearing other people’s “horror stories” and seeing negative depictions in the media can also contribute to peoples’ fears about dental care.
These fears are compounded if the patient perceives that the dental professional was not supportive or displayed poor bedside manner at the time of their negative experience. The personality, mannerisms and attitude of the dentist and other staff all play a role in whether or not patients feel comfortable.
In some cases, the fear of dental care is completely unrelated to experiences related to dental care. People who’ve suffered from physical or emotional abuse, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or had a bad experience in a related setting, such as a hospital, might associate dental care with those experiences and react accordingly.
Tips to Get Your Fear Under Control
- Research the practice. You wouldn’t buy a car before knowing about its features or what it could do. The same should be true of your dentist. Look the practice up and see what the reviews are like on sites like Yelp and Google+. Call the office and speak with the staff to get information and a feel for what the office environment is like. If you like what you hear, you are more likely to be at ease when you come in for your appointment.
- Ask questions. If you aren’t sure what a procedure is going to entail or why a specific instrument is being used, just ask your dentist or hygienist. Knowing what’s to come and why a particular method is being used can erase the fear of the uknown.
- Find a dentist that fits your personality. Some people like a dentist’s office where the staff is warm and friendly, making conversation and helping put you at ease. Others would prefer a more no-nonsense doctor that does what he or she has to do and has you on your way. Figure out which one is best for you and find a dentist that provides that kind of care.
- Don’t overload your senses. Sometimes, things like the bright overload lights and the noise of the tools or surrounding patients can make fear worse. If you need a face mask or ear plugs to help you relax, ask your doctor if it would be okay if you used them to help you relax.
- Go to your “happy place.” Imagining yourself relaxing on a beach or curled up in front of a cozy fire might make the process easier for you. If that’s easier said than done, try distracting yourself by thinking of other things that require your brain’s full attention, like conjugating verbs in a foreign language or listing every member of your extended family in your head. Anything that gets your mind off the immediate discomfort will help the process go by more smoothly.
There are also dental offices that offer specialized services to help reduce dental fear:
- Sedation dentistry offices use medications to help patients relax during procedures. DOCS sedation courses teach dentists the science of sedation, airway management and crucial skills for communicating with a sedated patient.
- NuCalm: NuCalm uses biochemistry, physics, and neurophysiology to rapidly and reliably relax brain and body functions. NuCalm is fairly recent to the field of dentistry.
If you believe you have dental anxiety or more serious dental phobia, it is important that you address your concerns before it has a negative impact on your oral health. Taking steps to improve your relationship with dental care will ensure that you have a healthy mouth for years to come.
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Bernstein, D. A., Kleinknecht, R. A. and Alexander, L. D. (1979), Antecedents of Dental Fear. Journal of Public Health Dentistry, 39: 113–124. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-7325.1979.tb02932.x
Chan, Amanda L. “Dental Phobia: 7 Common Fears, And How To Conquer Them.” www.huffingtonpost.com. 13 February 2012. Web. 26 April 2016. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/dental-phobia-fears-dentist_n_1257277.html>