Easing Dental Anxieties: Getting to the Root of the Problem

A laughing woman

Your palms get all sweaty, you get a lump in your throat, your heart starts to pound and your legs become weak…no it’s not a Steven King novel you are reading-- this frightful response is due to a trip to the dentist and it can strike at even the mere thought of making the appointment. Sure, it’s common, even cliché, to fear the dentist but are dental phobias real?

“Absolutely,” says Dr. Kenyon Glor,1 a dentist in Wellington, Ohio with over 25 years of dental experience. “Dental fear is real. Let's face it. There is a lot that can elicit a fearful panic in a dental office. Bad past experiences, anxiety about what's to come, pain, needles, sights, sounds and smells - they all trigger fear.” The biggest effect on dental health is avoidance of care, says Glor. “Simple things become more complicated and expensive.”

If you fear the drill and all things dental you are clearly not clearly alone. According to Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, an estimated 9 to 15 percent of Americans avoid seeing the dentist because of anxiety and fear.2 Surprisingly, it’s not just kids who are afraid. A University of Sydney study recently found women in their forties are more likely to have dental anxiety than any other age group.3

Calming Your Fears

How can you get over it and seek the care you may have been putting off? Patients have to feel in control and to take things slowly, explains Glor. His suggestions: Schedule a non-treatment, non-exam appointment to meet the dentist and the staff. See if you are comfortable in the office and with the staff. Then, start small with a very simple procedure. Set up a "pause button" or pause signal - when you signal the dentist, the procedure stops. Have the dentist tell you everything that is going on so that you're fully aware of what's going on. Finally, there is medication for sedation. There are many sedation alternatives to fit each individual’s needs, such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and moderate IV sedation.

For those who are truly scared, there are benefits of sedation dentistry and incredibly strong topical anesthetics, nitrous oxide, oral sedatives, and regular anesthetics available today. There are also technologies which make injections completely comfortable (even undetectable if done correctly). Yet aside from all those (which are quite beneficial) the best way to conquer fear is incredible power of trust and rapport says Dr. Daniel Wolter of Millennium Dental Arts in Goodyear, AZ.4

Trusting Your Team

“To me, this is the most essential element in overcoming dental anxiety, and also creating a low-stress, comfortable, clinical experience.” He explains, no matter how many sophisticated techniques your dentist uses to keep you comfortable, if you show up for your appointment with trepidation, a lack of understanding your dental needs and their urgency, and less than 100% trust in the abilities and ethics of your dental team, you are probably not going to have a good experience. “Even if a patient has a comfortable experience, and everything goes well, they are unlikely to return unless they trust that all their future experiences will be the same. They are also unlikely to invest in anything other than emergency treatment if they don't trust the dentist's diagnosis and recommendations. It's nearly impossible to maintain long-term dental health without a trusting relationship with a dental team.

Yes, the struggle is very real and Wolter says most people who have dental anxiety postpone dental visits as long as possible, even suffering through severe toothaches and years of pain in many cases. “In my opinion, there aren't enough drugs or sedation protocols in the world to change these behaviors without a true relationship with the dental team and a deep level of trust. Trust, rapport, education, and mutual respect gradually lower anxiety and other barriers, and create patients and relationships for life. This is the key to restoring a healthy mouth and maintaining it for a lifetime.”

Sources not cited or linked to above:

1 Interview December 2, 2014, Dr Glor

2 http://www.colgate.com/app/CP/US/EN/OC/Information/Articles/Oral-and-Dental-Health-Basics/Checkups-and-Dental-Procedures/The-Dental-Visit/article/What-is-Dental-Anxiety-and-Phobia.cvsp

3 http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=8807

4 Interview December 2, 2014, Dr. Daniel Wolter