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Afraid of the Dentist? You are Not Alone

Somewhere between 9 and 20% of adult Americans put off dental visits because of fear or anxiety. If you have delayed an appointment because of anxiety, you are not alone. Dental anxiety or its more severe cousin, dental phobia, may be triggered by a bad experience as a child or by the embarrassment of the experience itself.

There are several causes of dental anxiety:

  • Fear of pain, is sometimes triggered by a bad experience as a child. For many adults, early trips to the dentist occurred before recent improvements, such as much smaller anesthetic needles, that make the experience much less painful.

  • Fear of needles. A general fear of needles (such as vaccinations) can translate to a fear of needles in the mouth.

  • Dislike of anesthetic effects, such as the "fat lip" experienced after oral anesthesia.

  • Feeling out of control, or as if one's personal space is being invaded.

  • Self-consciousness about the appearance of your teeth and mouth.

How Does Modern Dentistry Help?

Modern dental technology has addressed the problems of anxiety in a number of ways. Although it can be hard for older people to realize how things have changed, the following factors help:

  1. Dental anesthesia needles are now smaller than they used to be and are no longer reused (meaning they are always sharp).

  2. Modern drills are a lot quieter and have less vibration.

  3. Most exam rooms now have televisions and/or music to help distract you from what is going on.

  4. Numbing gel, although it has been around for a while, is very helpful to reduce the pain from injections and can sometimes replace injections for deep cleaning.

  5. A lot of dentists no longer wear white coats or other obvious medical garbs, which also helps reduce anxiety.

  6. Sedation dentistry uses medication to help patients who suffer from anxiety associated with dental procedures.

How can I Deal With Dental Anxiety?

Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Tell your dentist or hygienist. You are not alone, and they have dealt with nervous patients before. They may have suggestions to help reduce your anxiety, and if they know they can take steps to make things more pleasant for you. Make sure to establish a signal for them to back off. Usually, this is raising your hand. Your office may have a standard procedure. Talk to them about exactly what you are afraid of, so they know how to approach the situation. For example, some people benefit from the dentist telling them everything they are going to do before they do it. A good dentist will know how to handle your anxiety because they do it all the time.

  2. Bring a friend, especially if you're having a more involved procedure. Having somebody to wait with can make you less likely to flee the waiting room. Make sure your friend is not somebody who is also afraid of the dentist, or you might feed off each other.

  3. Schedule your appointment for a quiet time to reduce your wait time, so anxiety does not have time to build. Try not to get there too early.

  4. Bring your phone with music you find soothing and a set of headphones. Alternatively, funny books or podcasts can help.

  5. Consider talking to your dentist about sedation. Many dentists now use conscious sedation for more difficult procedures.

  6. If you are looking for a new dentist, choose one you are comfortable with, both in terms of their personality and the layout of their office. Don't be afraid to schedule your appointment with a specific person within the practice. For example, if your anxiety was caused by an unpleasant procedure as a child, you may find things are worse with a practitioner that resembles the "guilty party." Also, some people are more comfortable with a female dentist.

  7. If you have a severe phobia and are experiencing symptoms such as insomnia before an appointment, crying in the waiting room or the examination room, feeling sick at the thought of the dentist, etc., then you may need therapy to help you with your phobia. CBT ("talk therapy") can help a lot.

Anxiety is one of the most common causes of dental neglect, but it really is something you can address and do something about. The key thing is to talk to your dentist about your feelings and fears and remember that they have literally seen it all before.


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