By Ronald S. Mito, DDS, FDS, RCSEd
Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Personnel &
Professor of Clinical Dentistry
UCLA School of Dentistry
Dental phobia or dental fear affects an estimated 30 to 40 million Americans, that’s roughly 9 to 13 percent of the population. That’s a lot of people who avoid regular dental check-ups and needed treatment for several years or even decades because of a deep-seeded fear of the dentist. Only when an individual is faced with a dental emergency or unbearable pain will they break down and with great trepidation visit a dentist.
For more than 30 years, I have observed and worked with people who fear the dentist. I have found that most people fear the dentist because of misperceptions about treatment, fear of pain, and fear of the unknown. Naturally, people will do everything in their power to avoid a fearful situation, even if it compromises their health.
However, there are several coping mechanisms and methods to control anxiety and fear associated with going to the dentist. With patience, trust, and behavioral therapy, dental phobic individuals will reach a point where they will be able to control their fear and get on track with restoring and maintaining good oral health.
The following methods are what I recommend to people who have dental phobia and want to get over it:
One – It’s very important that you talk to your dentist or potential dentist to make sure they are aware of your phobia and they have the time and desire to work with you on overcoming your fear. If necessary, you may even ask your dentist if he or she would be willing to meet in a non-clinical/neutral setting to discuss your fears, such as the reception room or business office.
Two – Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine is an effective way to minimize jitters and agitation. I advise people to avoid caffeine at least six hours prior to dental treatment.
Three – When you go in for your treatment, you may want to create a signal to indicate to your dentist to temporarily stop treatment. This will help you feel more in control of the situation.
Four – Folding your hands over your stomach can help you feel reassurance if you are anxious while in the dental chair.
Five – Try eating protein prior to going to a dental appointment. This will help reduce any feelings of hunger while in the dental chair.
Six – A really good technique to calm yourself down before and during a dental appointment is to focus on calm steady breathing. Fear can sometimes lead people to either hold their breath or breathe too rapidly.
Seven – Another effective method of reducing dental phobia is oral and intravenous sedation while undergoing treatment. However, this is only a temporary method and avoids the issue of long-term fear. It can be a method to allow the dentist to get your urgent dental needs under control while you work on developing your coping skills.
Eight – For children, the key is have their first dental appointment by six months of age so they begin to become accustomed to the dental office. Their first visit should not be for an emergency as this could traumatize them and set the stage for future fears.
If none of these techniques work to help relieve dental phobia, I encourage people to seek out fear reduction therapy with a clinical psychologist or other mental health professional. I have found that many patients who have mastered coping skills, either on their own or with the guidance of a psychologist have built the confidence they needed to start seeing their dentist regularly without the aid of sedative agents.