Many people experience anxiety about dental treatment but, for some, it can be so debilitating that they feel unable to attend appointments and their oral health suffers as a result.
Dental phobia is a serious condition that affects a large proportion of the population and can have huge impacts on a person’s daily life. Dentists report that infection and chronic gum disease are commonplace amongst anxious patients. With modern dentistry, there are many techniques and methods to help overcome patients overcome their fears so that the dental experience can be comfortable and, believe it or not, even enjoyable.
Why are people fearful of the dentist?
There are many reasons why people are worried about visiting the dentist. It may be something as simple as the clinical smell of a dental practice, or a previous bad experience. Below are a few reasons why you may fear visiting the dentist. Remember, you are not alone: there are many millions of people that suffer from dental phobia.
- Previous negative experience – you may have had a bad experience in the past that has put you off going to the dentist. This may be due to a painful procedure, a phobia of needles, or even a personality conflict with a dentist or dental staff.
- Embarrassed about your oral health and the condition of your teeth and gums - you may have neglected your oral health and your teeth over the years and are embarrassed about visiting your dentist for fear of what they might think or say to you. Many people fear that their dentist will ridicule or belittle them.
- Gagging - You may have a fear of dental instruments being placed in your mouth. This may trigger a gag reflex or cause an anxious feeling where you find it difficult to breathe.
- Unsympathetic dentists – you may have had an experience with a dentist who was not sympathetic to your needs and concerns, and this has put you off going back to see a dentist.
- You may have a fear due to the stereotype of dentists on the TV, in the press or amongst friends and family. If you haven’t been to a dentist before, it may simply be a fear of the unknown.
Recognising and understanding your fear
The first step you can make in overcoming this fear is to recognise it and know that something can be done about it. Below are ways that the right dentist can help you to overcome your fear -
- Communicate your fears and concerns – a dentist that understands your concerns can go a long way towards relieving your anxieties. It is important that you can talk about your fears and concerns with your dentist openly and comfortably.
- Gain a full explanation of the procedures involved – often something as simple as your dentist explaining how the procedure will be carried out step by step, or giving you the opportunity to ask questions, will relieve that fear of the unknown. It is important that your dentist explains things in non-technical, easy-to-understand language.
- Be open and honest with your dentist - if you feel embarrassed about the condition of your teeth, tell your dentist. Most dentists will have seen many cases of dental neglect - they will probably have seen teeth that are in a much worse state than yours!
- Try relaxation and distraction techniques – such as acupuncture, and relaxing music.
- Sedation - this can be used to put you in a relaxed, dream-like state of mind and is an effective treatment for very anxious patients.
The difference between anxiety, fear and phobia
A distinction can be made between these feelings of worry:
- Dental Anxiety is a reaction to an UNKNOWN danger. Anxiety is extremely common, and most people experience some degree of dental anxiety especially if they’re about to have something done which they’ve never experienced before. Basically, it’s a fear of the unknown.
- Dental Fear is a reaction to a known danger (“I know what the dentist is going to do, been there, done that – I’m scared!”), which involves a fight-or-flight response when confronted with the threatening stimulus.
- Dental Phobia is basically the same as fear, only much stronger (“I know what happens when I go to the dentist – there’s no way I’m going back if I can help it. I’m so terrified I feel sick”). The fight-or-flight response occurs when just thinking about or being reminded of the threatening situation. Someone with a dental phobia will avoid dental care at all costs until either a physical problem or the psychological burden of the phobia becomes overwhelming.
Whilst there are no reliable statistics (after all, few dental phobics will freely admit to never visiting a dentist), the most conservative estimates believe that 5% of people in Western countries avoid dentists altogether due to fear; and many more are anxious about dentistry.
A trained ‘sedation dentist’ understands. Nowadays, dentistry can be pain-free and there are many personable, kind and compassionate dental professionals around. Most people who have suffered with dental fears believe that having found the right dentist for them has made all the difference (read blog). This is especially true when fears were caused by previous bad experiences. Online dental anxiety support groups have proven to be very helpful for people to talk about their worries and realise they are not alone with their fears.