You can overcome your dental phobia

May 3, 2011

Are you afraid of going to the dentist? Do you panic, or experience physical symptoms like shaking, sweating or nausea at the thought of a dental appointment? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Many people don’t see a dentist because they have a dental fear or phobia – an acute, crippling anxiety that keeps them from having the healthy smiles they deserve.

If you haven’t been to a dentist in a long time, you may be surprised at the advances that have been made in the field of dentistry. These days, dentists focus on doing everything they can to provide their patients with a positive, pain-free experience. We use advanced anaesthetic techniques (including sleep dentistry), create a calm, welcoming environment, and hire staff who are gentle, caring and empathetic. We pay close attention to sights, sounds, smells and tastes, and try to make every visit – whether it’s a simple cleaning or a more in-depth procedure – as calm and manageable as possible.

However, despite these efforts, there are still those patients who are overwhelmed by their fear. They may have had a painful or traumatic experience in childhood, had a parent who was phobic and passed along their own fear, heard a story from a friend who had a bad experience, or been influenced by the negative portrayal of dentists in movies and television. Some patients fear the loss of control that comes from not being able to see what’s going on. Others are embarrassed by their teeth, and think the dentist will be appalled by what they might find.

These patients often end up experiencing pain and health issues from decay and gum disease that are 100% preventable. So what’s the solution? Start by finding a dentist who is understanding about your fear, and will do everything possible to make you feel at ease. He or she will use a slow, gentle approach that rebuilds trust.

Talk to your dentist. If your dentist doesn’t take your fear seriously, find one who will. Be honest and tell him or her about what makes you nervous or uncomfortable, and together, you can find strategies to make you feel less anxious and more comfortable. Some practices cater specifically to anxious or phobic patients – look online or in the phone book to find someone who can meet your needs.

Find someone you trust. In my experience, all of my dental-phobic patients have become comfortable in our office once we have established a trusting relationship. To establish trust, I work with sensitivity, caring and patience. I tell them exactly what I am going to do before I do it so there are never any surprises. And if a patient wants sedation, I find the option that’s right for their needs.

Put yourself in control. If loss of control is a problem for you, your dentist can help. Ask him or her to explain what’s going on at every stage of the procedure, and you can prepare for what’s coming next. Talk to your him or her about using a hand signal if you need to stop, take a break, rinse out your mouth, etc.

Educate yourself. Learn more about oral health, and about the procedure you’re going to have. The more you know, the less anxious you are likely to feel.

Find ways to help yourself relax. Practice some deep breathing or visualization exercises. Distract yourself by listening to music or an audiobook. Watch TV while you’re in the chair (many dentists offer this option – just ask).

Consider sedation. If you’re still feeling anxious, sedation could help. I always use the least invasive options to achieve my patients’ goals. So, for example, we would consider nitrous oxide (laughing gas) before suggesting sedative tablets. And we would provide conscious intravenous sedation (twilight sleep) before offering a general anaesthetic. However, the choice depends on the patient’s level of anxiety, and on the work that needs to be done. Every situation is different.

Over time, dentists will work with their patients to help them regain emotional control over their dental appointments and conquer their phobia. Once you trust that your dentist won’t cause you pain, and you have the tools you need to calm your anxiety, dental appointments will get easier, your mouth will be healthier – and you will be a happier person with a better smile.

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