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Dental Phobias

What is a dental phobia?

Dental Phobia refers to the fear of going to the dentist as well as receiving dental care. Nearly 75% of adults in the US suffer from some degree of dental phobia, mild to severe. About 10% of this population experience such fear of the dentist and of receiving dental care that they avoid dental care at all costs–and usually that cost is their oral health, and later their general health. Another large portion of this population of people with dental phobias only seek dental care when they have a dental emergency. Typically, these people fall into a “cycle of fear.” They avoid seeing the dentist for routine maintenance (regular exams and cleanings) due to fear until they experience a dental emergency requiring invasive treatment (root canal and crown or oral surgery and implant) which can reinforce their fear of dentistry.

the cycle of fear can be broken
The cycle of dental fear can be broken. We can help!

What are some of the common causes of dental phobias?

Many common causes of dental phobias come into play to create a dental phobia. The perceived manner of the dentist is an important component of the dental phobia. If the person sees the dentist as impersonal, uncaring, uninterested or cold it can result in high dental fear, even in the absence of a painful experience, whereas some people who had a painful and difficult experience did not develop a dental phobia if they felt their dentist was caring and warm.

Embarrassment is a trigger of dental phobia

Embarrassment is another cause of dental phobia. The thought that the dentist will take one look at your teeth and fall out of his chair with fright, or berate you for poor oral hygiene or humiliate you for neglect is a strong fear. No one wants to feel ashamed in a situation like that. Embarrassment is probably the most common concern voiced by people who haven’t been to the dentist in along time. However, most dentists nowadays do not hold to lecturing their patients in order to scare them into compliance.

Dentistry has evolved over time, changing with the rest of the societal mentality. The authoritarian parenting model has fallen to the wayside to be replaced with compassion and open communication. Dentists have learned that verbally “punishing” patients for their oral health is only going to lose them patients in the end. Many dentists now endeavor to make dental appointments a positive experience. Just remember, the dentist is not there to pass judgement. Your dentist is there to see that your teeth are healthy. If they require work to get back to a good sense of health, your dentist will talk about treatment options and ways to help yourself at home. Your dentist wants to promote a positive experience with gentle guidance and open communication.

If at any time you do feel embarrassed or feel that your dentist is talking down to you, acknowledge these feeling with your dentist. He may not realize the way his tone sounds. Never ever be afraid to talk to your dentist.

dentists use smaller, hand-held drills nowadays.
Dentists use smaller, hand-held drills nowadays.

If you are not in control, you may experience dental phobia.

The fear of a lose of control is another very common phobia. Some people sit in the dentist’s chair and immediately begin to feel anxious over the idea that this semi-stranger and his assistant will have you at their mercy. That they have all the power and you just have to sit there trusting that they are doing the job as they described and that they are doing the best possible job they can. Maybe you don’t like the feeling of being tipped back in the dental chair. It’s a valid concern. It has been known to give some people head-rushes, vertigo and even mild nausea. If that is your fear, tell your dentist. That chair can be manipulated into different positions for your comfort and your dentist’s comfort.

Perhaps you don’t like the lose of control inherent with not knowing what the dentist is doing. You may have no idea what all those instruments on that tray are for. If this is your concern, tell your dentist before he starts the procedure. As he starts working he can explain what he is doing and why he is using the instruments.

If it’s more than that, think about asking your dentist the following questions:

  • If it was your tooth/mouth what would you do?
  • What does the treatment involve/ how is it done?
  • What will the treatment feel like?
  • Are there any alternatives, including the pros and cons?
  • Can anything go wrong?
  • What happens if I do nothing?
  • What are the costs of the various options?

Most dentists will be happy to talk you through procedures, either before or during. And most dentists will give you a “stop sign.” Whether it’s holding up your hand or raising your leg, this stop sign lets the dentist and his assistant know you wish them to stop treatment for whatever reason. Those reasons can range from “I need a break,” “I’m uncomfortable” or “I’m feeling some pain.” When the dentist notices this sign he will stop and let you tell him what is wrong and give you a chance to regroup.

Challenging your senses

Dental offices have a lot of stuff to overwhelm your senses. Unusual smells, instruments that looks like they’re straight out of a horror movie, that high-pitched whirring sound from the drill and the sound of the suction device. It can be very unsettling for some people. If this causes you any fear, again, talk to your hygienist or dentist. If those sounds disrupt your calm while your are undergoing a procedure, think about taking a set of earphones/earbuds and an mp3 player with you. Most dental offices try to create a phobic-friendly office atmosphere. Art on the walls, that clean feeling without being overly sterile. As for the tools, have your dentist go over what he’ll be using and have him show them to you prior to starting the treatment. If the smell bothers you, spritz some of your favorite cologne or perfume on the collar of your shirt and the cuffs of your shirt. That will help defuse the bizarre smell of a dental office.

with plastic protecting the chair and equipment that looks straight out of some sci-fi horror flick, this can be fairly creepy looking.
With plastic protecting the chair and equipment that looks straight out of some sci-fi horror flick, this can be fairly creepy looking to those that have dental anxiety.

Summarizing how to combat your dental phobias

If you have a fear of pain, needles, the drills, or of having a panic attack, please Talk To The Dentist about it. Dentists are trained to help put your mind at ease from these fears. Remember the stop sign to ensure any pain is noted so the dentist can help. Have the dentist talk to you, while you close your eyes gently and breath deeply through your nose when he uses the needle to numb your mouth. If you think you may have a panic attack, tell your dentist what that may look like so he can stop the treatment before it gets out of hand.

Remember, your dentist wants to help you. He wants you to stay calm and relaxed so you receive the very best treatment possible. The best way the dentist can help you is if you address your fears with him.

How does past experiences with dentists shape dental phobias?

There are two different ways in which experience creates a dental phobia: direct experience and indirect experience.

Through direct experience a person may develop dental phobias stemming from a traumatic, difficult and/or painful dental experience. Traumatic experiences such as a tooth breaking during a restoration appointment can create a very negative conception of the dentist. But that can happen. The tooth may have been more brittle that the dentist originally foresaw. Perhaps you are a patient who doesn’t respond well to the anesthesia, you are difficult to get numb. If you are unaware of this fact, then the dentist may be unaware of this fact and will start working even if you are not sufficiently numb. Traumatic, difficult and painful experiences can lead to a fear of dentistry and should be addressed with your dentist or hygienist so they can find ways to ease your fears. People can develop dental phobias through indirect experience such as hearing about other people’s traumatic experiences or negative views of dentistry. Sometimes people’s fears are influenced by mass media. So many movies, TV shows and cartoons have portrayed dentistry in a negative way. There are very few movies in which a dentist is seen in a positive light.

a scene from Marathon Man, it's no wonder why people have a deep rooted fear of the dentist.
A scene from Marathon Man, it’s no wonder people have a deep rooted fear of the dentist.

Here are 5 movies with the most notorious evil dentist:

The Dentist 1996 starring Corbin Bersen plays an obsessive and insane dentist

Little Shop Of Horrors 1986 with Steve Martin playing a sociopath dentist

Marathon Man 1976 Dustin Hoffman is tortured by a former Nazi dentist

Novocaine 2002 Steve Martin seems to enjoy playing crazed dentists

The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934 Hitchcock also enjoyed a good crazed dentist character

Here are 5 movies that puts dentists in a better light:

Good Luck Chuck 2007 Dane Cook plays the nice guy

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2005 Sir Christopher Lee plays a stern dentist and father

Ghost Town 2008 Ricky Gervias tried his hand as the front man, as a funny dentist

Finding Nemo 2003 The dentist never meant any hard to his fish, Darla however…

The Whole Nine Yards 2000 Matthew Perry’s dental expertise helps Bruce Willis get away with murder

The dentist in Finding Nemo is kind, professional and kind of goofy.
The dentist in Finding Nemo is kind, professional and kind of goofy.

As you can see, dental phobia is a long-standing problem for many folks. But it is getting better. With positive-honesty and open-communication with yourself and your dentist, you conquer your dental phobia and be one of the people who can just relax. Put aside the panic attacks and the nerve wracking fears. Always remember the dentist, his assistant and the hygienist are there for your health and well being. They don’t judge. They won’t scold you. They just want to help. There is truly nothing to fear!

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