Although it’s common to experience some dental anxiety, just the idea of visiting a dentist causes a level of dental fear that prevents some patients from seeking professional dental care.
The physiological response in people with dental anxiety includes an increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and even digestive issues—before or during treatment. This can cause various problems, such as reduced pain tolerance, slower recovery, and a greater risk of post‐treatment pain and complications.
Common issues include worrying about an injection or procedure perceived to be painful, the discomfort of keeping one’s mouth open for a long time, or the need to undergo multiple procedures. Dental anxiety triggers include drills or needles, dental smells and sounds, and negative past experiences.
How Prevalent is Fear of the Dentist?
If dental fear or anxiety are preventing you from receiving the dental care you need, you’re not alone. According to research, between 50 and 80% of adults in the U.S. have some degree of dental anxiety.
Of these, more than 20% don’t see a dentist regularly, while an estimated 9 to 15% avoid care altogether. An even smaller percentage of people suffer from odontophobia, a type of mental health disorder included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition.
How Does Dental Fear Impact Health Outcomes?
Unfortunately, avoiding the dentist can lead to pain, oral and general health problems, worsening anxiety, and the need for more complex and costly dental procedures. Without proper dental care, bad oral bacteria can make teeth more prone to decay. Cavities that grow large enough can’t be repaired with fillings alone, so more expensive and invasive treatment such as a crown may be required. When teeth can’t be saved, the gaps can cause serious functional and aesthetic repercussions and the need for dental bridges or implants.
Neglecting professional dental care also leads to gum disease. If gum disease advances to periodontitis, oral bacteria can spread to other parts of the body, causing systemic infections and complications, especially if you have diabetes, respiratory disease, or heart disease. The earlier gum disease is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of keeping your natural teeth and maintaining your general health.
Dental Solutions for People Struggling With Dental Anxiety
San Diego dentist Dr. David Sabourin has seen many cases of dental anxiety over his nearly 40-year career and helped countless patients alleviate their fears. “The best way to prevent small problems from turning into big ones is to visit a dentist twice a year. If you have any degree of dental fear, finding a compassionate dentist and having a heart-to-heart discussion about your fears is a good first step to overcoming this issue.”
It’s important to choose a dentist you feel comfortable with, so you can build a trusted relationship over time. Clinical expertise and a proven track record are equally important as a compassionate touch. Looking at online testimonials/reviews and asking friends for recommendations can help you find the best dentist to address your specific needs.
It’s common for patients to worry about procedural-related pain. Topical and local anesthetics are used for less complex procedures like dental fillings. Depending on the type of procedure, pain and swelling can be minimized with ice, oral rinses, and over-the-counter or prescription pain medication. Following your dentist’s recommendations can greatly reduce the risk of pain and complications.
Sedation Dentistry is a Game-Changer for Patients with Dental Anxiety
Dental anesthesia can alleviate fears, positively change a person’s relationship with dentistry, and ultimately benefit their oral health, systemic health, and quality of life. If you have any degree of dental anxiety, find a practice that offers different types of dental anesthesia and ask about the pros and cons of each one to help you make an informed decision about the most optimal choice for you.
Nitrous Oxide: Also called laughing gas, this colorless gas has been a mainstay of dental anesthesia since the mid-1800s. The safe and effective gas is mixed with oxygen inhaled through a small mask that fits over your nose. Nitrous oxide is an excellent option for mild to moderate dental anxiety because it induces a feeling of relaxation and sense of well-being.
IV Sedation: This type of safe sedation is ideal whether you have severe dental anxiety or are undergoing more complex treatments. IV sedation involves administration of sedative medication through a thin needle placed into a vein in your arm or hand that helps you relax and feel comfortable.
Oral Sedation: Oral sedatives called benzodiazepines work by decreasing activity in the parts of your brain that control fear and anxiety. It’s common to take one pill an hour before a procedure, although some patients also take a pill the night before to reduce worrying about treatment.
Coping Strategies for Managing Dental Anxiety
Focused breathing and meditation can slow your heart rate and ease anxiety. Listening to music on headphones during treatment can get your mind off the procedure. Professional interventions including cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, and muscle relaxation therapy have all been used with varying degrees of success to help patients overcome dental anxiety.
The Key Things Patients with Dental Fear Should Know
Modern advances in dental techniques and technology have led to minimally invasive treatment methods for gum disease, tooth loss, and more. Learning about potential procedures, such as dental implants, provides reassuring insights about what to expect during treatment.
For example, dental implants have a success rate as high as 99% and advanced techniques including digitally-guided surgery and lasers have made the procedure more comfortable for patients. Check out Dr. Sabourin’s dental implants in San Diego guide for more information.
Studies have found that many patients become anxious due to a loss of control or absence of understanding their treatment. Simply asking your dentist to explain the procedure, including expectations, concerns, and safety measures can alleviate some anxiety. Open communication and asking about solutions including sedation dentistry or mental health interventions can help ensure you get the professional dental care you need to maintain a healthy smile and life!