In the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” But he was merely talking about the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and not the crippling fear that many people experience when faced with the going to the dentist.
Dental Phobia is an actual clinical term that means THE FEAR OF DENTISTS. If you are one of the millions of people who suffer from this common phobia, you are likely shaking your head “YES” right now.
There’s a paradox about Dental Phobia that is fascinating. Studies show that dentists are consistently ranked as among the most trusted professionals. Yet, fear of actually visiting the dentist is so much a reality for so many people, that it can’t be ignored.
To avoid feeling the fear, thousands of people (even when in pain) can’t pick up the phone to schedule that long overdue dental appointment. Dental Phobia can be so overwhelming that it can lead to years of procrastination. Procrastination is often why a small problem, such as a tiny cavity, can becomes a very BIG and COSTLY problem (which only helps to reinforce one’s anxiety-a real dental “Catch-22”).
Thanks to the entertainment media, fear of the dentist is deeply woven into our collective consciousness. Just think of films such as Marathon Man, Little Shop of Horrors, The Dentist, etc. and you know what I’m referring to. Modern folklore, too, can reinforce some common myths that are associated with dental treatment. For some, just the phrase root canal is enough to bring on images of pain and suffering.
(Check out Painless Root Canal: An Oxymoron? In this post I demystify the procedure. Find the link the end of this this article]
LET’S BREAK DOWN DENTAL PHOBIA AND SEE WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON
Here’s some good news: Dental Phobia is so commonplace that most dentists address it as one of the most essential parts of their daily practice.
I’ve been a dentist for over 30 years. I have discovered that my most anxious and fearful patients are singularly scared of one specific thing: THE NEEDLE.
Whether it is a carry-over from childhood or the impact of an unpleasant adult experience, fear of getting a shot, especially in the mouth, is an almost universally shared emotion. But here’s what is crucially important for you to understand: nearly every needle-phobic patient who has ever sat in my chair has been able to overcome their fearful angst simply by receiving calming and reassuring words of encouragement, having a the comforting hand of an empathetic assistant to hold, and the application of lots and lots of topical (on the gum) anesthetic before the deed is done.
For dental phobic patients the next hurdle happens at the point when the feeling of numbness has spread and treatment commences. Many people experience unease that the injection has fully deadened the area to be treated. This feeling of angst is palpable and can be described as a disquieting ANTICIPATION OF PAIN that could rear its head at any moment. Add to that the THE SHRILL OF THE DRILL, THE STEADY SPRAY OF WATER (images of waterboarding), and THE SMELL of burning tooth.
(FYI, that telltale smell is not because a tooth is incinerated. The odor is actually from pulverized tooth (and sometimes old filling material) that is being dispersed by in a combination of air and water from the dental hand piece.)
If you have ever experienced an unexpected jolt of pain during a dental procedure, the memory is both long lasting and visceral. The fearful patient will wait with apprehension for that jolt to come. Even if it happened only once and it was years and years in the past, the feelings of dread can readily surface. Again, reassuring words, a compassionate hand to hold, plenty of anesthetic and allowing enough time for complete numbness to set in has proven to be the magic combination that gets patients to calm down a bit. A set of headphones with music is also a pleasant distraction.
Dentistry has come a long way in the past few decades. Great advances have been made in the delivery of care, especially in management of anxiety, fear and pain control. Comfortable and nearly painless care is not just a reality today. It is an essential reality. My staff and I are proud to have built a practice known to deliver care in a trusting and caring environment.
IF YOUR DENTAL PHOBIA IS SEVERE, HERE’S A SUGGESTION:
Is this you? If you’ve avoided making a dental appointment because the thought of the treatment paralyzes you, may I make this suggestion: call and ask for a CONSULTATION VISIT ONLY. Go and meet the dentist with the knowledge that NOTHING will be done to you on that day. Then decide for yourself if this dentist, this office staff, and you, are a comfortable fit.
If you approach the consultation is if you were conducting a job interview…to hire someone…you will feel more in control. You’re in the driver’s seat. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to say you’re afraid. And make sure all your concerns are addressed before you leave. If one practice isn’t a good fit, try another.
Do you suffer from Dental Phobia? Have you found ways to overcome it? I’d love to hear your feedback.
Read: Painless Root Canal: An Oxymoron?
Michael Sinkin practices cosmetic, implant, and restorative dentistry in New York City. He is known for the wonderful care he provides to his patients and for his wicked sense of humor. To contact Dr. Sinkin, link here.
I am 31 years old and I’m pregnant with my first child so I was told it’s very crucial to see a dentist. I am very mad at my mom for never making me go and as I got older the fear of going got worse and worse where I’m bawling my eyes out thinking about it. I know I have cavities and I have really bad plaque built up on my bottom front teeth and it scared me to know what if there’s something worse… my fear is what if when they clean my teeth they fall out all kinds of fear I’m just absolutely terrified.
Michael Sinkin says
I understand how paralyzing dental fear can be. That said, take a deep breath and try to clear your mind of what happened in the past. Being angry with your mom is not helping you know.
Secondly, don’t self-diagnose, while you may be “aware” of some cavities, you have no real way of knowing exactly what type of care you need.
One thing is for sure, you need a thorough and gentle examination and cleaning. The build-up of deposits and plaque behind your lower front teeth is so common and IT CAN look pretty grungy.
It Doesn’t mean you have big problems underneath…maybe moderate gingivitis.
CONGRATULATIONS ON SOON TO BECOMING A MOTHER. AWESOME!!!!
But, pregnancy can influence the health of your teeth and gums what with all those hormones circulating in your body and of course your body is working double time…you are eating for two. It is important that you make a dental appointment.
Three suggestions to help you ease into receiving gentle dental care:
1. Get a recommendation for a dentist from someone you know, a friend or your obstetrician.
2. Call the office and tell them you are fearful of dentistry and need reassurance that the doctor and staff will help her receive care. Tell the receptionist that you are pregnant and need some dental care.
3. Schedule your first appt as a consultation only-no treatment-no fear. Meet the doctor, let him/her take a peek if you feel comfortable.
One step at a time…little baby steps first.
Best of health to you and your child.
I was never fearful of the dentist until I went to dental assisting school and had multiple panic attacks while i was the patient. Having to sit so long made me worry about my ibs thus panic. I since interviewed at my own dentist office sister office and it was horrible. The staff was rude and further made me nervous that the staff would not understand. I currently have at least 4 known cavities that need to be,filled, one is giving me pain; however i think ill take your advice and go in for a consult or a simple cleaning, no long periods of time unless drugged so i don’t even know what world im on. Praying to have strength
Michael Sinkin says
Sitting in as a patient in an educational/training setting can sometimes exacerbate one’s feelings of anxiety as there is a lot of conversation and instruction going on which can (if not openly acknowledged and addressed) leave the patient feeling marginalized. The clinical task at hand can “feel” like something is being done TO you instead of FOR you. IBS most certainly can be exacerbate by stress and and the anticipation of an untimely urgency can be exaggerated by a feeling of being “trapped.”
I like your plan and encourage you to speak with your dentist and his team. As the patient being treated you are the single most important person in the room and should me made to feel that way. Good luck.
I’d like to say your article eased my fears of the dentist but it has not. As someone who’s asthma will not allow the use of laughing gas, and who is allergic to the caine family, I don’t have to deal with the fear of needles, I have had to go through three root canals with nothing to numb the pain and it is excruciating. after the first time, I couldn’t muster up the courage to go until the pain of the tooth itself is close to that of the procedure, and even then it’s a struggle to not have a panic attack getting to the chair. I’m not sure what to do anymore.
Michael Sinkin says
What you self-described goes far beyond dental phobia. Your dental experiences, compounded with your inability to be anesthetized, would give anyone trepidations. Two suggestions: 1) There are some newer local anesthetics that have different pharmacology and might be appropriate and effective for you. If your own dentist doesn’t use them, call around to find someone who does. 2) Consider sedation dentistry. Again, call around to find a dentist that provides that service.
Best of luck,
Thanks for this. I am terrified of the dentist so keep visits to a minimum. Lo and behold I have another painful cavity so am due a visit. This article has made me think that it might be time to keep visits a regular thing. That way, the fear will lessen and the cavities won’t be quite so catastrophic.
Michael Sinkin says
I am heartened by your response. Remember to be open and upfront with your dentist about your trepidations over dental care. It will help him or her help you and make for an easier experience for both of you.
Good luck and good health.
It’s amazing feeling, if you can see the reaction of patient when the fear of dentist disappears during treatment! Even more satisfying and rewarding than completing the hardest operation you could think of!
Eva Grayzel says
I have a friend who asks to bring their small non-allergenic dog to help relax them. Is that kosher?
Michael Sinkin says
I actually have several patients who bring their therapy dogs that sit on their laps or in a carry case. I have seen first-hand the comfort provided by a four-legged friend. Obviously, I can’t accomodate larger breeds, but sure, it’s absolutely kosher, though not to eat.
I’m 30 yrs old, I’ve never been to a dentist, so much fear. worst, I hv a large cavity and a very excruciating pain, so much so pain meds don’t help anymore. first thing in the morning I’m making that call for an appointment, thank you, I’m encouraged
Michael Sinkin says
Good for you!
Be upfront about your feelings and go for it.
I’m happy to have helped in some way. Let me know how it goes.