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Dental Anxiety

People sometimes feel stress about going to the dentist. Dental anxiety is the term for the fear of dental care or of dental professionals. Many factors can cause dental anxiety. The effects or symptoms may include diverse behaviors and can lead to complications.


If the mere mention of the word “dentist” makes you tense, you’re not alone. As many as 20% of Americans have said they avoid going to the dentist altogether due to anxiety about or fear of dentists. Fortunately, there are many different ways to deal with dental anxiety or dental phobia (which results in even deeper panic than dental anxiety). With a little effort, those fears can be overcome.

Dental Anxiety Definition and Prevalence

It’s hard to say just how many people suffer from dental anxiety. A widely cited study found that nearly 12% of people who took part in a random phone survey said they had high dental fear. In addition, 17.5% of the survey sample had moderate dental fear. More than a third of the people who took part in the survey – 36.5% – had not been to a dentist in over a year. The study leaders labeled people in this group as “dental avoiders.”

Dental avoiders include people who will put up with embarrassment and physical pain rather than seek help. Just under half of this group – 15.5% – also said they had “some degree of dental fear.” People who avoid the dentist out of fear may have gum infections, untreated cavities, even broken or crooked teeth. Yet, their fears prevent them from seeking the help they so badly need.

Some Causes of Dental Anxiety

What’s behind dental anxiety? Commonly-reported reasons why people have dental anxiety or dental phobia include the following:

Previous bad experiences. An insensitive dentist or a scary memory from a childhood dental visit or embarrassment over dental issues can build up steam over time to create debilitating dental anxiety.

Powerlessness. Lying down in a chair and allowing someone to probe around your mouth without being able to see what’s going requires an enormous amount of trust. There’s no denying we have very little control over what happens once the dentist starts an examination of our mouths.

Scary anecdotes. Everybody’s heard a nightmare story or two about dental visits gone horribly wrong. They tend to spring to mind just as you’re reclining in the dental chair, don’t they?

Fear of pain. This seems to be universal. Unexpected pain is commonly known as a “bummer.”

Often our dental anxiety or phobia overshadows the reality that neglecting dental health can lead to grave consequences. Increasingly, medical science points to a connection between oral health and overall body health. If we’re to maintain a healthy body, dental anxiety and dental phobia cannot be allowed to stand in the way.

Interventions: Dealing with Dental Anxiety

Here are five tips for making headway against dental anxiety or dental phobia:

Communicate. Find a dental team you can trust. Trusting your dental team will go a long way toward easing your fears and your pain. Anxieties are related to many types of fears. Therefore, find a professional who is able to read your cues, answer your questions and calm your concerns. If you trust the person doing the work, you will be better able to get through the appointment. Also, speak openly with your dentist about your concerns. Remember that a dentist is a trained professional. You aren’t the first patient to come in with dental fears. Working with your dentist on your anxieties can take the pressure off trying to manage them alone. Just the act of expressing verbally what’s been locked in your head can lighten the load as well.

Relax. Practicing some form of deep breathing or meditative exercise like yoga is a great way to put your body ahead of your mind. If your body is relaxed, it’s very difficult for your mind to be anxious. Meditation, essential oils and deep breathing are not for everyone. However, these can be helpful and calming before a dental visit. During the appointment, take care to breath slowly and deeply using your diaphragm. This can help counteract the adrenaline that may be coursing through your body. Clear your mind and think happy thoughts. To help their patients relax, many dental practices around the US now offer types of treatment you’d find in a spa. In some, for example, before the dentist gets to work, patients may dip their hands into warm wax that softens their skin as the calming scent of lavender fills the room.

Distract yourself. Often, the sounds of a dentist’s office are enough to get one’s mind racing. Dental instruments, sounds from other examination rooms, and general office conversation can trigger anxious thoughts. Many dentists now offer their patients a wide selection of music or audio entertainment to shut out the sounds that can fuel dental phobia. Along these lines, patients who are afraid of the dentist might soon be able to escape to an alternate universe via virtual reality (VR). A recent study found that dentists who immersed patients in VR scenes were able to lower patients’ stress and pain.

Plan. Think about your fears and concerns about your visit. Then, prepare a list of questions to help you feel more at ease. A few questions that might help lessen your anxiety include:

  • Can you explain what you are / will be doing with my teeth?
  • What does that (tool) do?
  • How could I improve my oral hygiene?
  • Why is it necessary to do ____ (procedure)?
  • What are my options for that tooth?
  • If I get nervous, what signal can I give you to stop?

In addition, try to schedule your dental appointments at times when you won’t be otherwise under pressure. Squeezing an exam between meetings or during a short lunch will turn up the pressure. Perhaps most importantly, don’t cancel or skip your appointment due to fear. Frequently cancelling or rescheduling delays the care you need. It also increases anxiety. The longer you put off your visit, the more worked up you may get. Therefore, schedule the visit, put it on your calendar, and make it a point to attend.

Sedation. If relaxing, spa-like touches or virtual reality distractions aren’t your cup of tea, you can always discuss medical options with your dentist. Various sedatives offer a range of choices, from light relaxation to putting you under completely for the duration of your work. For more about sedation, see the following section.

Dental anxiety and dental phobia are very common. No one needs to go through them alone. Acknowledge the fear, talk it out, and above all, put your dental health above your anxieties. Your overall health is worth it.

Sedation Dentistry

For many, a trip to the dentist can be too much to bear. Putting off treatment, however, can lead to problems with overall health. Dentists use a variety of medications to help stop pain. In addition, they can offer meds that can help their patients relax, cope with their fears, and maybe even take a little trip to their personal happy place.

Patients typically remain awake when medical sedation is used. The various levels of sedation include the following:

  • Minimal: this is a state of wakeful relaxation
  • Moderate or “conscious” sedation: patients may slur their speech and not recall much of what happens while “under”
  • Deep: patients are on the “edge of consciousness” near “sleep”

Unlike the conscious states above, “general anesthesia” produces an unconscious state. Specially trained dentists may use this type of sedation in specific situations. Talk with your dental team to learn more about your sedation options.