Greg* was very fearful when he first came to see me for his dental problems a few years ago. He looked shaken up and it was obvious that he was very uncomfortable in the dental chair. I politely introduced myself and shook his hand but before even a “hello”, the first words that came out of his mouth were, “nothing personal but I hate dentists. I hate being here. This is so scary and it has taken me a lot to come here. In fact, I wouldn't have come. But, my wife insisted!” Upon further questioning, Greg informed me that he had a very bad experience at a dental office as a child. It had scarred him for life. It had traumatized him so much that he would much rather live in constant pain and have chronic infection than go to a dentist for treatment. He had even attempted to take his own tooth out once rather than go to a dentist.
Unfortunately, Greg is not an isolated person. Dental anxiety and phobia are so common in our day to day practice of perfecting smiles. People who suffer from dental phobia usually have a higher risk for gum disease and early tooth loss. Damaged and discolored teeth can make people insecure and embarrassed about the way they look in personal, social and professional situations and this leads to low self esteem.
Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension, fear or worry. Phobia, in the simplest terms, means morbid fear, sometimes irrational, of an activity, object or a situation. Most people can live with a certain degree of dental anxiety but dental phobia can make a person too afraid to the point of never seeking much needed and deserved dental care. According to a study, 9% to 15% of Americans avoid seeing the dentist because of anxiety and fear. That's about 30 million to 40 million people.
There are several reasons why people suffer from dental anxiety or phobia.
Pain: People fear pain and usually associate dentists with “poking, prodding and needles” and hence, severe pain.
Negative experience: If a person has suffered a traumatizing experience at a dental office in the past, he or she will more likely be fearful of their next visit.
Hearing about another person's negative dental experience: Usually people or children hear from their friends or family about a horrifying dental experience that they have heard of or experienced. This causes transference of the fear.
Embarrassment: Most people feel that their mouth is such an intimate part of their body that the proximity of the dentist and hygienist can be quite embarrassing for them. Some people neglect their dental health for so long and are embarrassed to be seen by a dentist for fear of judgment.
Loss of control: The feeling of helplessness and the loss of control while being still in the dental chair is feared by many. Although they can hear the sounds in a dental office, they cannot see what is being done in their mouth. This leads to anxiety and fear.
If a person feels tense or physically ill, gets increasingly nervous, feels like crying or actually cries, or, has trouble sleeping the night before a dental appointment because of the thought of the dental appointment, it is important for them to recognize that these maybe signs of dental anxiety. Dental phobia may manifest anywhere from difficulty in breathing to a full blown panic attack at the sight of a dentist or dental instruments.
However, there is good news for people suffering from dental anxiety and phobia. Dental anxiety and phobia like any other fear can definitely be overcome.
Communication with one's dentist is key. After one's dentist lays out one's treatment plan for them, it is imperative to make sure to ask all the questions one needs answered before start of one's procedures. Also, it is important to be honest with one's dentist about how much treatment one can handle at every appointment. People suffering from dental anxiety and phobia should feel that their fears and concerns are being listened to and understood. It is important for them to have a sense of control over their treatment. Usually establishing a signaling system, such as raising one's hand, lets the dentist and dental team know when to stop work in the middle of procedure in case of some discomfort, hence giving the person being treated the sense of control over the procedure.
Modern dentistry has come a long way. Modern dental clinics and modern dentistry are no longer a scene from a horror story. With the right professional and compassionate dentist and dental team, it is possible to become desensitized to one's fears.
Greg eventually did get all of his dental problems treated. It was initially a tough task but with great patience and team effort, Greg, I and my dental team were able to get him to smile with confidence again. Greg is a different person now when he walks into the dental clinic. He has no fear anymore. And he always encourages anyone he comes across to not put away going to a dentist because of fear. It is indeed heartwarming to see him laugh out aloud whenever he is in the dental chair. Greg's successful fight against his deep seated fear was also his successful fight to keep his pearly whites for life.
* Name changed to protect privacy.