Do you put off going to the dentist for regular cleanings and check-ups? Do you allow tooth pain and other dental problems to linger and get much worse before finally seeking help? Do you avoid the dentist altogether? Between 5% and 8% of Americans completely avoid dentists out of fear, estimates Peter Milgrom, DDS, director of the Dental Fears Research Clinic at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of Treating Fearful Dental Patients. A higher percentage, perhaps 20%, experiences enough anxiety that they will go to the dentist only when absolutely necessary, says Milgrom. The good news is that modern dentistry uses techniques and treatments that are designed to cause much less pain and anxiety. Today’s dentists are trained and equipped to handle fears and ensure that you are comfortable and confident when under their care.
Dental Fear is Both Natural and Learned
Researchers say that both biology and environment have something to do with fear of dentists. Natural survival instincts come into play, such as wanting to keep airway passages open and feeling vulnerable when in a prone position. Learned fears may be the result of childhood experiences, trauma, and other external factors.
How Fear Affects Dental Health
Fear of visiting the dentist can range from mild anxiety to deep-rooted dental phobia. People who are deeply afraid of going to the dentist may find that it affects their quality of life, because they spend a lot of time dreading going to the dentist. While some may go to the dentist every now and then, they may have extreme anxiety before and during treatment. Others simply never go to the dentist at all. Research shows that people who fear dentists often have worse dental health than those who don’t. The consequences poor dental health can go far beyond dental pain or lost teeth. Gum disease is a serious infection that can affect other parts of the body. Studies now link it to illnesses including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Causes of Dental Fears
- Bad experiences: Studies suggest that about 80-85% of dental phobias are the direct result of a bad dental experience.
- Past abuse: Dentist phobia is also common in people who have been sexually abused. A history of bullying or having been physically or emotionally abused by a person in authority may also contribute to developing a fear of the dentist, especially in combination with bad experiences with dentists.
- Uncaring dentist: Pain inflicted by a dentist who is perceived as cold and controlling has a huge psychological impact. Pain caused by a dentist who is perceived as caring is much less likely to result in psychological trauma.
- Humiliation: Other causes of dental phobia include insensitive, humiliating remarks by a dentist or hygienist. Human beings are social animals, and negative social evaluation will upset most people.
- Vicarious learning: Another cause of dental anxiety is observational learning. If a parent or other caregiver is afraid of dentists, children may pick up on this and learn to be afraid as well, even in the absence of bad experiences.
- Evolution: For millions of years, people who quickly learned to avoid snakes, heights, lightning and sharp objects probably had a good chance to survive and to transmit their genes. So it may not take a particularly painful encounter with a needle to develop a phobia.
- Post-traumatic stress: Research suggests that people who’ve had horrific dental experiences suffer from symptoms typically reported by people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Handling and Overcoming Your Dental Fear
Dealing with your dental fears is important. By reducing or eliminating your anxieties, you’ll be able to get the regular dental cleanings and treatment necessary for a healthy mouth and gums. The first step is to find a dentist you can trust who has experience in treating fearful patients. You may want to ask friends or family about dentists who they might recommend. Find a dentist who will listen to you, and who will take the time to explain how your treatment can be accommodated to your specific situation. Once you have found a dentist who helps you feel comfortable, there are a few things you can keep in mind to ensure that your visit runs smoothly:
- When making the first appointment, tell the office staff that you are afraid and ask for an initial appointment where you’ll simply meet the dentist and talk about your situation. This enables the dentist to learn what is needed to make your treatment better.
- Ask about ways to give you more control over the treatment situation.
- If you feel that having the dental chair tilted back horizontally is uncomfortable and frightening, ask if you can sit in a more upright position.
- Take someone you trust with you, who can make sure you keep your appointment, supports you and does not share your fears.
- Ask about pain management and know your options.
Dental fears are natural and understandable; however, putting off dental treatment only makes problems worse. It’s vital that you recognize and understand your fear, and then take steps to overcome it. Your overall health depends on it. Fortunately, many dentists are specially trained in handling fearful patients. A variety of methods and treatments are available to reduce pain and alleviate fear in the dentist’s chair.