Many patients have some anxiety about visiting the dentist. Dental phobia, or dentophobia, though, can be truly life limiting. People with this phobia often postpone even badly needed dental work, putting both their oral health and their overall physical health at risk. Here is what you need to know.
Dental phobia is a broad category that includes numerous specific fears. It is possible to develop a fear of virtually anything related to seeing the dentist, but the most common specific fears include:
- Needles: Trypanophobia, or the fear of needles, is surprisingly common. People with this fear are often afraid of having numbing injections.
- Pain: Until very recently, moderate to severe pain was simply an unfortunate side effect of many dental procedures. Today, new technology and techniques have rendered modern dentistry nearly pain-free, and medications can take care of any post-procedure discomfort. Still, if you have an aversion to pain, a low pain threshold, or a very sensitive mouth, or if you have experienced past dental trauma, you may be afraid that your visit will be painful.
- Choking: Local anesthetic can cause a feeling of numbness not only in the mouth, but also in the throat and even the nose. This can induce a fear of choking or becoming unable to breathe, especially if you have ever experienced choking at any time in your life.
- “The Dentist”: The film Little Shop of Horrors is arguably Hollywood’s best, but far from its only, portrayal of a cold, sadistic dentist. Sadly, some real-life dentists can be quite uncaring. Whether you are influenced by the movies or have had a bad experience with a past dentist, fear of “The Dentist” is not unusual.
- Sensory Fears: Many people become overwhelmed and afraid of the sights, sounds, and smells of a dental office. These fears are especially common in those with other medical phobias, but they can also develop on their own.
Diet, home oral hygiene routines, genetics, and simple luck all play a role in oral health. Some people are at high risk for dental disease if they miss one cleaning, while others can put off seeking dental care for years without significant damage.
Still, the vast majority of people will eventually develop a cavity or gum disease. These conditions are progressive, and left untreated, they will worsen over time. That means that putting off dental care can lead to more invasive and expensive dental work, creating a vicious cycle in which anxious patients become less and less likely to make an appointment since they know it will mean they need at least one procedure.
Left untreated, dental disease can destroy your teeth, gums, and jawbone. It can cause you to start isolating yourself as you try to hide your teeth from others, raising your risks for depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse. It can lead to pain, inflammation, and infection that can spread to the rest of your body, raising your risks for heart disease and other serious illnesses.
Coping with Dental Phobia
Thankfully, many dentists today are sensitive to patients with dental anxiety. Soothing tactics include spa-like environments, calming music, televisions, warm blankets, and other sensory tools that encourage relaxation.
In addition, sedation dentistry is widely available. Nitrous oxide is a mild option that induces deep relaxation while keeping you awake and in control, making it a great solution for those who fear being “put under.” It wears off in just minutes, allowing you to drive home and go about your day.
If you need a bit of additional help, oral sedation is a moderate solution, while IV sedation allows you to sleep comfortably through your procedure. Please note that if you have oral or IV sedation, you must bring someone to your appointment to drive you home.
Begin by calling the dentist’s office to let the staff know of your fear. Schedule an appointment to speak with the dentist without having any actual work performed. You and your dentist can come up with solutions to get you through any procedure you might need, such as hand signals to indicate that you need more anesthetic or a brief break. Talk about the tilt of the chair, the order in which procedures will be performed, the music that will be played, and any other concerns you have. Knowing that you have some control and setting up a game plan in advance can go a long way toward helping you feel empowered and less afraid.
If your phobia is severe, consider seeing a professional therapist. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and hypnosis can help you overcome your phobia rather than just managing it.