Den­tal fear is noth­ing to be ashamed of. You are not alone. Fear of the dentist is extremely common. From mild discomfort to all out phobias, fear of the dentist makes it difficult for many patients to get the care that they need.

The Most Severe Dental Fear: Dental Phobia

A den­tal pho­bia is a very extreme form of den­tal fear. Pho­bias are phys­i­cally dif­fi­cult on patients. Patients may become nau­seous, get headaches or feel like they are going to pass out. These are real physical symptoms. The patient is not being a baby and being told to suck it up does not help. Treat­ment for den­tal pho­bia is done the same way as treat­ment for other pho­bias. This is called sys­tem­atic desen­si­ti­za­tion. It is usu­ally done with a ther­a­pist but also can be done alone with proper under­stand­ing.Systematic desensitization is a therapy that uses brief exposure to the feared stimulus to help the patient overcome the fear. Inter­est­ingly, even though pho­bias are strong they can usu­ally be treated using this tech­nique fairly eas­ily. I don’t say this to lessen the seri­ous­ness of the pho­bia, but from a psy­cho­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, this is a very treat­able disorder. This is good news for those who are suffering. Patients with phobias often know that their fears are irrational and wish that they did not have to go through this. If you suffer from a true phobia the best place to start is with a therapist who specializes in phobias to discuss a plan of action. True phobias are not as common as more mild dental fears but can be extremely difficult on the patient.

The Most Common Dental Fear: Dental Anxiety

Most patients who are fearful at the dentist fall into the dental anxiety category. The milder fears can still be dev­as­tat­ing to patients. Patients with fear often fall into what I like to call a fear-pain cycle. They fear the den­tist so they don’t go for pre­ven­ta­tive work. They miss their clean­ings and don’t receive reg­u­lar exams and x-rays. They wait to come to the den­tist until some­thing hurts. Usu­ally they don’t come until some­thing really hurts because the fear kicks into high gear. They worry about what will need to be done, they worry about cost, they just worry. Finally the pain becomes too much and they walk through the door. Sadly at this point they usu­ally need some pretty advanced work. These patients may get the work done to get out of pain, but after they are out of pain they again begin to avoid the den­tist out of fear, their recent expe­ri­ence strength­en­ing their belief that the den­tist is scary and painful. The cycle begins again. This cycle is very common. When a pain is associated with an experience it is human nature to avoid the situation. The best way to break this cycle is for patients to continue treatment after the pain has been resolved. Preventative treatment at the dentist is generally not painful, at worst it tends to be boring. Continuing to follow recommendations for preventative exams, cleanings and fluoride treatments can help the patient begin to feel more comfortable at the dental office and stop associating the dentist with pain.

Techniques to Make Your Dental Visit More Pleasant

There are many dif­fer­ent relax­ation tech­niques to reduce anx­i­ety. The ones that are the most beneficial for patients with dental anxiety are the ones that can be done anywhere. Here are some of the most common, and easiest to learn relaxation techniques that can be used in the dental chair:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique of tensing and relaxing muscles to force the body into a relaxed state
Visualization or Guided Imagery are techniques of imagining you are in a peaceful place which puts you in a state of relaxation
Listening to peaceful music or sounds to drown out the sounds of the dental office
Hypnosis is another way to reduce anxiety. Self hypnosis is possible. Hypnosis is a very deep form of relaxation, it is not all about making strangers in an audience cluck like a chicken. Books and audio sources are readily available to help learn this technique. There are also professional hypnotherapists that can be contacted to aid in learning the techniques.
Aromatherapy can cover some of the smells that are associated with the dental office and may cause anxiety
Medications can be used in more severe fear situations. Your dentist would decide if this is the best option for you

The Power of Information

Being informed of what is going to happen is also important in reducing anxiety. If you are properly informed you will feel more in control and empowered as a patient. Patients should always understand the treatment that is offered in any medical office, including at the dentist. The best way to understand is to ask questions. Never feel ashamed to ask questions. Dentists and hygienists want to educate, it is a big part of their job. Additionally there are numerous web-based resources for learning what is involved in specific procedures if you are afraid to ask in the dental office.

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