Dental anxiety (also known as dentophobia, dental phobia, dentist phobia, and odontophobia) refers to a deep fear of visiting the dentist for dental care. While most adults in the United States experience some anxiety about going to the dentist, some of them suffer such serious dental anxiety that they avoid going to their dental check-ups altogether.
Dental anxiety is estimated to affect approximately 36 percent of the population, and another 12 percent suffer from extreme dental fear of the dentist.
Even though some dental anxiety can feel debilitating, skipping out on visits to the dentist can take a toll on one’s oral hygiene and negatively impact their oral health. Fortunately, there are ways to combat dental anxiety.
Folks can have dental anxiety for a variety of reasons. In most cases, a traumatic experience such as a complicated or painful procedure at the dentist can cause someone to develop dentophobia. For example, if someone experiences temporary or permanent paralysis or a perforation of the sinus cavity from wisdom tooth extraction, they may have anxiety about going to the dentist again. They may also worry about needing another tooth extraction.
Sometimes, dental anxiety can arise from a poor interaction with a dentist. For example, if someone visits a dentist who is not gentle or invalidates the patient’s concerns in a demeaning way, they might worry about visiting a dentist again.
But bad experiences of one’s own are not always the culprits. Just hearing about someone else’s traumatizing dental experience can be enough to give someone dentophobia. Whether they hear a dental horror story from a friend or watch gory dental work in a movie, they can develop dental anxiety.
Other anxiety disorders may also be at the root of dentophobia. Here are some example phobias that can cause dental anxiety:
Some symptoms of dental phobia include the following:
If you suffer from a fear of the dentist, you may feel inclined to avoid the dental chair. But doing so can be dangerous for your dental health. Your teeth and gums can suffer long-term from avoiding routine dental visits. Issues may arise and progress like tooth decay, periodontal disease, and oral cancer if not detected early enough.
There are treatments available to help you overcome your anxiety.
Below are some common treatment options available for dental phobia:
Dentists may use sedatives, nitrous oxide, a local anesthetic, or general anesthesia to soothe a patient. They may also prescribe anxiety medications such as Xanax or Valium before a dental procedure.
In some clinics, the dental staff includes psychologists. These psychologists and dentists work together to help patients manage and combat their dentophobia through behavioral and relaxation techniques. Common techniques include practicing deep breathing exercises, listening to soothing music with headphones (to drown out the noise of loud dental machines), meditating, and more. Dental patients can practice some of these behavioral therapy techniques on their own while in the waiting room, too.
Psychologists often help patients reduce anxiety through systematic desensitization, as well. This is a process in which a patient is gradually exposed to their fear until they’re able to combat it without assistance.
Dentists may practice gentle dentistry and explain the procedures they’re performing in a calming manner, using positive reinforcement to help the patient feel at ease. They may also praise the patient after a procedure to boost their confidence, which can help to diminish their fear.
Patients can often help themselves overcome their fears by doing their research before choosing a general dentist. If the patient believes that they can trust the dentist they choose, they’re likely to feel less afraid. They may even request to meet with the dentist prior to a procedure to make sure that they feel comfortable.
A dentist can prescribe a variety of medications to treat a patient’s anxiety. They may give the patient a mild sedative or local or general anesthesia. They can also prescribe medications like Valium and Xanax.
Xanax may help dental anxiety in patients. However, Xanax is just one of the ways that dentists can help treat dentophobia in patients.
The biggest concern with avoiding a dental appointment due to dental anxiety is developing poor dental hygiene. Dental visits are necessary — even for anxious patients — to keep health problems at bay.
While negative experiences in the dentist’s chair can take a toll on someone’s mental health, not taking that trip to the dental office at least once or twice a year can take a toll on their physical health too. Forgoing a dental treatment for too long can lead to poor dental hygiene, painful cavities, a root canal, gum disease, and even undiagnosed oral cancer.
Talk to the dental team at your dental practice about how you can overcome your dental anxiety, together, to ensure that you receive the oral care you need.
Beaton, Laura, et al. “Why Are People Afraid of the Dentist? Observations and Explanations.” Medical Principles and Practice : International Journal of the Kuwait University, Health Science Centre, S. Karger AG, 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5586885/.
Corry, James. “Dentophobia - What Is It and How Can It Be Helped?” Smilelign, Smilelign, 31 July 2019, smilelign.com/blog/2019/7/31/dentophobia-what-is-it-and-how-can-it-be-helped.
“Dentophobia: How to Overcome Your Fear of the Dentist.” Pleasant Family Dentistry, 11 Sept. 2020, www.pleasantfamilydentistry.com/dentophobia-what-is-it-and-how-can-we-help-you-overcome-it/.
“Overcoming Dentophobia, a Fear of the Dentist.” Gentle Dental of Michigan, www.gentledental-mi.com/overcoming-dentophobia-a-fear-of-the-dentist/.