The Complete Guide to Conquering Your Fear of the Dentist

There are few words as roundly disliked as ‘the dentist.’ The thought of all those drills and needles is enough to make most people shudder. It is hardly surprising, either, when you look at the combination of hard metal and soft, fleshy mouth. The process is intimate, uncomfortable and atypical, so anxiety about visiting the dentist is pretty normal. As a result, dental companies invest millions every year in new technologies to try and find ways to make the experience less unpleasant.

There are some people who develop an intense fear of the dentist. This fear is so overwhelming that they actively avoid check-ups and essential dental care. If the anxiety is so bad that a person has a physical reaction to just the thought of visiting the dentist (clammy hands, tight chest, etc.), this would usually be considered a phobia.

The reality is that phobias of the dentist are fairly common, for all of the reasons described above. Yet, even without a phobia, worries about what might happen, how much pain could be involved, and the response of the dentist can make visits to the local tooth doctor rather stressful. Here are some tips to make the experience less unpleasant.

Image via Flickr by Conor Lawless

Demystifying Dental Treatments 

Over the years, a number of major breakthroughs have been made within the context of dentistry and psychology. One of the most important involves a study conducted at a dental university, in Japan. The study showed that the brains of people with intense anxieties about visiting the dentist react uniquely to the sound of dental drills and other tools. These people respond just as strongly as if they were actually in the chair, waiting for a treatment.

When considered in combination with routine ‘pain assessment surveys,’ it becomes clear that fear of the dentist is a more complex condition than it seems. For instance, around 75% of patients claim to experience no pain at all during treatments. With the range of modern available, this is no surprise. So, why do so many of us still cite pain as the worst aspect of dental appointments?

Ultimately, the fear associated with the dentist is all about anticipation. For the vast majority of patients, the actual treatment is pain free and really not that traumatic. So, if it’s our brains that are the problem – instructing us to be afraid of what is, admittedly, an unusual scenario – is there a way to bypass the fear and get rid of the anxiety altogether?

Understanding Fear of the Dentist

To find a solution, it is first necessary to investigate what it is about dentist appointments that causes such anxiety. For most, there is nothing scarier than the drill. And what’s most interesting about this fear is that most of the anxiety comes from the word itself. The term ‘drill’ throws up images of scraping, rasping, and destruction. In reality, dental drills are relatively small devices which work with great precision and cause little pain.

It is the word, and in many cases, the sound, which causes panic. This is why dental technology and engineering has been focused on finding a replacement for the drill for many years. The experts know that a quieter, less intrusive tool could do exactly the same job, but still make a huge difference to the level of comfort which patients feel.

However, education has its part to play as well. It is common for people with a phobia of the dentist to express feelings of embarrassment and shame. They worry about the reaction of the dentist during the exam and obsess over whether the state of their teeth will elicit disgust. Whilst dentists certainly were a little firmer in the past, modern dentistry is considered a caring profession. It is the dentist’s job to make patients feel relaxed and at ease.

Breaking Bad Habits for Good

It is very unusual for a dentist to lecture patients about the state of their teeth, primarily because it does not help. As studies have shown, this kind of heavy handed approach only serves to discourage people from keeping up with appointments. A good dentist offers practical advice, answers questions honestly, and treats patients sensitively. The bottom line is that you’re not going to bring them anything that they have not already seen before.

If you have not been to the dentist in a very long time, you are probably worried about admitting this to the specialist. However, if you let this fear prevent you from seeking essential dental treatment, you are running the risk of serious damage and serious pain. The best thing to do is book an appointment as soon as possible. If the dentist asks you why you have not been keeping up with regular appointments, just be honest.

These professionals deal with hundreds of patients every week, all with unique needs and problems. They will not be outraged, angry, or disappointed in you. Instead, they will be pleased that you have finally taken responsibility for your teeth and come to the right place for help. If a treatment is needed, they will explain the process in detail and make sure that you are comfortable enough to proceed.

Recognising the Dangers of Inertia

The consequences of not going to the dentist should be obvious. The thing with teeth is that they don’t really get better on their own. If there is a problem, it will likely deteriorate until an abscess develops and serious tooth ache sets in. By this point, the original issue, which probably could have been solved with a minor treatment, is going to need a much more invasive procedure. With treatments like wisdom tooth removal, there is often no other option. You either get the problem dealt with professionally or you suffer with the consequences.    

The more intense the procedure, the more potential for pain. This is why it is critical for everybody, but especially those with a fear of the dentist, to keep up with regular appointments. If you maintain your teeth and follow the advice from your dental hygienist, you will probably never need a painful treatment. It is true what they say; prevention is always better than the cure.

It is important to realise that a lack of dental care can lead to serious consequences. For people with dental phobias, there is a much higher incidence of gum disease and early tooth loss. Over time, the teeth will become discolored and this may negatively impact self-esteem. In the most extreme cases, poor dental health can be linked to life threatening conditions like heart disease, lung infections, and even a reduced life expectancy.

Introducing Cognitive Behavior Therapy

So, is there a way to cure the phobia and get a fearful patient back into the chair for a check-up? Well, there are a number of options actually. At present, cognitive behavioral therapy is a very popular form of treatment. It works with the underlying issues, so that a person can eventually learn to separate their anxiety about what could happen from their logical awareness of what will happen.

Cognitive behavior therapy continues to have some remarkable results. In one study, a proportion of 79% of patients with a dental phobia later went on to undergo treatment without an anesthetic. And a further 6% happily underwent treatment with an anesthetic. The average amount of therapy sessions which a person needs before they can comfortably undergo treatment is only around five or six.  

These are impressive statistics and they certainly suggest that, if you suffer with a dental phobia, it could be worth trying cognitive behavior therapy. Then again, CBT is hardly a practical solution. It can be costly, time consuming, and the results are never guaranteed. Fortunately, we are on the cusp of a new age in dental technology. According to the experts on the front line, those pesky drills will soon be a thing of the past.

A New Age for Dentistry Technology

There have been alternative technologies on the market for some time now, but they have always been too expensive to be an option for anything but private clinics. The good news is that things are changing fast. Emerging technologies are cheaper than ever before and procedures like laser dentistry are finally making their way into the mainstream.

For instance, laser beam technology can now be used to prepare teeth for fillings. It completely eradicates the need for drills altogether. The process is quick, quiet, and causes patients a lot less anxiety. This is particularly useful for young children, who are known to respond very well to laser treatment. Without the disarming vibration and noise of a drill, the procedure is usually over before they’ve even started to worry about it.

Laser dentistry can be used to treat tooth decay, whiten discolored teeth, and alleviate the symptoms of gum disease and gum recession. In the case of fillings, the laser is used (in place of a drill) to remove decay from the bad tooth, so that it can be prepared for filling. It does this by interacting with the water contained in tooth enamel and dentin. The laser energy photons engage with the water molecules and eliminate decaying pieces of the tooth.

The Advantages of Laser Dentistry

The best thing about this laser method is that it involves virtually no pain or discomfort. The laser beam and the water come together to, essentially, vaporise the decay. It leaves the tooth with a very clean and adhesive friendly outer surface. This makes it easier for the dentist to apply the filling and make sure that leaks and recurrent cavities are not allowed to resurface. The process is significantly faster than treatments involving old fashioned drilling.   

There are a number of additional benefits for the patient. For example, laser dentistry greatly reduces the degree of swelling and bleeding which occurs after soft tissue procedures. It also sterilises and disinfects the surrounding tissue as it removes decay. This helps to keep the treatment area clean, bacteria free, and as secure as possible for the filling. The laser works to ‘cure’ fillings by toughening the composite material and making them stronger overall.

These advantages are on top of the benefits to emotional health. For children with learning disabilities, laser dentistry is very often the only way to deliver essential treatments in a comfortable and stress free manner. In most cases, all that patients hear is a slight popping noise and the sound of the water passing though the machine. Whilst the technology cannot always be used without a needle based anesthetic, targeted research is currently attempting to find a way to combine the laser with a temporary numbing effect.

The Disadvantages of Laser Dentistry

The question is, are there any downsides to using laser treatment for fillings? The answer is yes, there are a number of disadvantages and situations in which laser dentistry is not suitable. These incidences are decreasing all the time, but it is still important to be aware of them if you plan to seek a laser procedure. For the moment, laser technology cannot be used to prepare fillings between teeth, fillings too close to existing ones, or cavities large enough to require a crown instead.

The laser is also unsuitable for preparing teeth which are being filled for a second time. If a new filling is needed because an old one has disintegrated, drilling will have to be used to remove the remnants of the old repair job. As aforementioned, it does not guarantee that a patient will not need to receive a needle based anesthetic. If you are worried about needles, you must talk to your dentist before you go ahead with a laser procedure.

The biggest disadvantage to using laser dentistry for fillings is the expense. This type of technology is still fairly uncommon in mainstream surgeries, because it costs too much for the businesses to justify. At around $39,000 ($45,000 for the most sophisticated equipment), this method does not come cheap. Whilst it is the determination of the dentist that decides whether or not costs get passed on to the patients, it is actually very difficult for surgeries to operate laser technologies and still keep prices constant and competitive.


Related Articles