Fear and concern about the dentist, dental environment, and dental treatment is extremely common. Reasons for such fear are varied and understandable. Dental care today is vastly different from what it was throughout human history, when local anesthetic, aseptic techniques, and the importance of good patient-doctor communication were lower priorities. Dental treatment involves people looking in and making changes to your mouth, which can feel invasive and intimidating. Teeth are also strongly linked to ideas of appearance and social status, so tooth changes or problems have great emotional impact.
Whatever the reason or history, an individual's dental anxiety should be acknowledged and understood. However, it does not have to be a barrier to dental care. It is crucial to still go to regular dental visits and go through with needed oral care treatment. Here are some tips to help reduce worries and fear relating to your dental visit.
1. Ask the dentist what's going on. It is perfectly reasonable to ask for a "tour" of your xrays, a look at what's being done using a patient mirror, or simply a description of what procedure is happening and what to expect. Dentists sometimes assume that patients would rather "zone out" and not be aware of the situation, thinking that details may increase anxiety. It is helpful to know how much information would be useful for you as a patient.
If you have many questions about your treatment plan and would like details and explanations, ask your dentist if you can arrive early or stay later after your appointment so that you have time for both treatment and discussion.
2. Become familiar with the office. Knowing more about the environment can help reduce anxiety because it lessens the "fear of the unknown". See if the practice has photos on its web site or on review sites like Google or Yelp. You can even call the office and ask for a quick tour on some day before your appointment. Ask if you can briefly meet the people who will be involved in your care so that all faces are familiar.
3. Don't be afraid to indicate pain or discomfort. If you are undergoing a procedure where it is important to be numb (such as a filling, root canal, or deep cleaning), ask your dentist or hygienist how to indicate that you are not numb enough. There are some sensations that you may still feel, such as pressure or heat, but most pain sensations can be removed with local anesthesia. Most dentists will ask you to lift a hand if you are not numb enough to ensure that speaking or moving your head does not disrupt the procedure. It's okay to ask for more local anesthesia, and can help reduce the fear that your treatment is going to continue even if it is uncomfortable. It's almost always unecessary to "tough it out" and some patients simply need more anesthetic than others. It also helps give patients control during their treatment and can help you feel that you are a part of the procedure.
4. Tell the dentist what you are worried about. Dentists may be used to hearing, "No offense, but I hate the dentist", but it is incredibly helpful when patients are descriptive about their anxiety. Particular dental fears vary from person to person. Some people are nervous about the feeling of the needle when receiving local anesthesia, while others don't like to be laid back to far in the chair or dislike the sound of the drill or the feeling of water in their mouth. Once your practitioner knows your anxiety triggers, he or she can help reduce your overall fear by trying to decrease particular situations.
5. Supplement anxiety reduction with nitrous oxide or medication. Consciousness of dental anxiety and good dentist-patient communication is the best way to make your appointment as comfortable as possible. However, some supplemental medication may be helpful, especially for patients with severe anxiety. Ask your dentist if he or she has nitrous oxide for conscious sedation. Some dentists also prescribe medication to help patients relax or feel less worried. It is important to follow all instructions for any form of anxiety reduction medication, especially if you need a ride to and from the appointment.
Note: This blog is intended for general information and oral health education. No part of this post is meant to diagnose or treat any condition and all writing is the opinion of the author only. Dr. Katie-Rose Wagner is not affiliated with any companies, brands, publications, or commercial interests beyond her dental practice (Smiles By Rosie Family Dentistry, located in East Somerville).