Coping with dental fear

May 01, 2015

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Dental anxiety and dental phobia are much more common than most people realize. While going to the dentist might not be the most enjoyable experience for many people, most of us can overcome the anxiety and make regular checkups and cleanings a priority for our general well-being. However, for others, this phobia may be so severe that they avoid going to the dentist altogether. In fact, some dentists even specialize in helping patients get over this fear. All in all, learning to cope with dental phobia can seem like a big challenge, but makes a major difference in your oral care and overall health. 

Dental anxiety vs. dental phobia 

"9 to 15% of Americans fear the dentist."

According to Colgate, approximately 9 to 15 percent of Americans avoid going to the dentist out of fear.In general, fear of the dentist is a feeling associated with both dental anxiety and dental phobia, which is perhaps why the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, these two terms differ in regard to the severity of fear. Those with dental anxiety may get nervous or worried at the thought of going to the dentist, but will often still sit through appointments despite their uneasiness. On the other hand, patients with dental phobia may find any excuse to skip appointments or simply never go to the dentist. Dental phobia is sometimes also known as odontophobia or dentophobia. 

Of course, this scale is not black and white. Each person will have a varying degree of dental anxiety or phobia that may affect their willingness to go to the dentist. Similarly, people have different reasons for developing a fear of the dentist. For some, it may be that a past painful experience discouraged them from returning, while for others the issue is the noise of loud dental tools. Several common causes include:1,2

  • Fear of gagging
  • Discomfort caused from feeling out of control
  • Feeling unable to breathe properly
  • Embarrassment over oral health problems
  • Fear of dental tools
  • Concern caused from past painful or uncomfortable experiences

Any of these fears can be related to dental anxiety or dental phobia - none of them are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, there are signs of dental phobia besides avoiding the dentist's office. If you feel nauseous beforehand, can't sleep the night before an appointment or experience shortness of breath or panic while you're in the waiting room, you may be experiencing dental phobia. 

Dr. Louis Siegelman, an expert on dental phobia, told the Huffington Post, "I've met people out in the hallway hugging the wall, I've had people I've had to meet outside the office because they couldn't bring themselves in."

Overcoming fear 
The general feelings of fear caused by dental anxiety or phobia may get worse in time if not addressed. Dental phobia is often learned in childhood and builds up as kids become adults. When we're young, a trip to the dentist for a minor medical procedure can seem particularly painful and scary; this memory then sets the seed for long-term anxiety, according to Dentalphobia.com.3

There are several common recommendations for working to overcome, or at the very least minimize, dental phobia. For those who are adverse to loud noises created by dental tools, wearing headphones or earplugs can help reduce the noise. Another frequent recommendation is for those with dental phobia to sit down with the dentist before an appointment and discuss what procedures will occur, thus removing an element of the unknown. Greatist, a health and wellness publication, recommends using mindfulness to think about positive experiences while you're in the waiting room and focusing on breathing during a checkup or cleaning.

"What is dental anxiety and phobia?" Colgate, Sept. 18, 2013. 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

"Dental Phobia: 7 Common Fears, And How To Conquer Them," by Amanda L. Chan, Huffington Post, Feb. 10, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/dental-phobia-fears-dentist_n_1257277.html

"Dental Fear," by Dr. Louis Siegelman, Dentalphobia.com. http://www.dentalphobia.com/dental-fear

"The Ultimate Guide to Oral Health [Infographic]," Greatist Team, Greatist, Oct. 30, 2012. http://greatist.com/health/ultimate-guide-oral-health

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