Dealing with Dental Anxiety

Dealing with Dental Anxiety

“We cater to cowards” is a common tagline that some dental practices use in their advertising to reassure those who have dental anxiety that their dentist treats such patients with compassion and understanding. However easily recognized that tagline may be, our NK Family Dental team knows that “coward” isn’t a good word. There is nothing cowardly about feeling apprehensive or frightened by dental treatment. Dental anxiety and its more severe form — dentophobia — are legitimate conditions that need to be addressed before those who experience one or the other can seek and receive the treatment necessary to achieve and maintain good oral health.

What is the Difference Between Dental Anxiety and Dentophobia?

According to studies, approximately 10% of U.S. adults struggle with dentophobia, while around 75% experience some level of dental anxiety.

Dental anxiety may be mild to moderate, typically taking the form of a general sense of worry and apprehension when thinking about an upcoming procedure. After all, most people don’t enjoy going to the dentist, just as most don’t enjoy going to the doctor. Even those who have good oral or overall health can feel uneasy about what the dentist or doctor may discover during the examination. Should the dentist diagnose an issue requiring treatment, the anticipation of an unpleasant experience can trigger feelings of dread that emotionally escalates the actual problem.

Fear of pain during treatment is a leading cause of dental anxiety. Although today’s procedures are generally painless — including the injection of numbing anesthesia — certain people have a lower pain threshold, and may require a higher dose of anesthesia. For example, it is well-documented that people with naturally red hair have a low tolerance for pain, especially in the mouth. This is because people with red hair have a gene variant called melanocortin 1 receptor. One study that looked at individuals with this gene variant found redheads were much more likely to report dental fear and avoidance — most likely out of concern for numbing and pain.

While experiencing dental anxiety isn’t easy, it isn’t debilitating. Those with mild-to-moderate levels are still able to pull themselves together enough to make and keep appointments, and follow up on needed treatments. They are able to rationalize the necessity of dental care to their oral and general health — as well as their physical appearance – as the motivation to face their fear and go through with it. Having a supportive dentist who acknowledges their patients’ stress and helps them process their emotions plays a major role in one’s ability to manage dental anxiety in a constructive way.

However, dentophobia is a very different matter. First, it is helpful to provide the medical definition of a phobia. A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal. Phobias are more pronounced than fears. They develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object. In the case of a severe phobia, the sufferer may organize their life around avoiding the thing that’s causing them anxiety. As well as restricting their day-to-day life, it can also cause a great deal of distress.

According to Cleveland Clinic, dentophobia — also known as odontophobia — is a specific type of phobia in which the idea or anticipation of going to the dentist leads to a fearful response. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes dentophobia as a specific phobic disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

People who have this type of phobia will avoid seeing a dentist even when their neglect of oral health results in advanced tooth decay, periodontal disease or a potentially life-threatening infection. Ironically, such behavior results in more extensive treatment eventually being necessary — that is, the worst-case-scenario the patient so greatly feared becoming reality because the course of decay or disease has progressed too far.

Cleveland Clinic states that people who have dentophobia tend to already have one or more of the following conditions:

  • Anxiety disorder.
  • Another phobia.
  • Substance use disorder.
  • Panic disorder.

Dentophobia symptoms may include the following:

You may have this specific phobic disorder if your fear of dentists:

  • Occurs when you think about visiting or going to visit the dentist.
  • Prevents you from seeing a dentist, even when you’re in pain or need urgent treatment.
  • Triggers symptoms of anxiety or fear that don’t match the actual danger.
  • Lasts at least six months.

If you recognize yourself in the above description of dentophobia symptoms, your healthcare provider may diagnose dentophobia, and may also recommend that you see a mental health professional, such as a psychologist — who can formally evaluate your symptoms, including how the phobia impacts your daily life.

Common Triggers for Dental Anxiety

Dental anxiety can be triggered by the following situations:

  • Sitting in a dentist’s chair or visiting a dentist’s office.
  • Seeing or hearing dental instruments.
  • Visiting a dental hygienist or dentist.
  • Thinking about visiting a dentist.

In the case of those affected by dentophobia, fear would be triggered long before entering a dentist’s office — and, as stated earlier — would be so strong as to prevent them from getting that far.

Other triggers include the following:

Anesthesia — This fear may involve the process of receiving anesthesia (closely related to fear of needles), or that the anesthesia won’t be effective, and they’ll feel pain. Some people may also fear the side effects of numbing medicines, such as a temporary numbness of the lips.

Blood Some people have a fear of seeing their own blood or others’ blood (hemophobia). They may panic at the minor bleeding, or the possibility of bleeding that may occur during any dental procedure or treatment.

Choking This involves the fear of gagging or choking when the dentist numbs their mouth. They may fear not being able to breathe or swallow.

The dentist This is a common fear among those who have had a bad experience with a dentist — such as one who ignored signs of pain during a procedure, was verbally abusive or dismissive of the patient’s concerns. Negative experiences with a dentist in childhood may leave an especially strong emotional imprint.

Feeling pain or discomfort Even with well-administered anesthesia, some dental procedures may result in slight pain or discomfort. People who are sensitive to pain may become anxious at the thought of feeling discomfort or pain during their dental procedure. This may include the anxiety of anticipating pain after the anesthesia wears off.

Needles — People afraid of needles may fear the injections dentists administer before dental procedures.

Noise — The noise made by dental instruments and drills used by the dental hygienist or dentist may trigger fear.

Smells — Some people may become anxious because of how the dentist’s office smells, or the specific aromas that arise during dental treatment.

How to Find a Supportive Dentist

Establishing good communication between patient and dentist is essential to having a good patient experience. This can be easier said than done, however. Some dentists may have excellent clinical and technical skills, but lack the capacity (or willingness) to talk to anxious patients in a way that acknowledges their fears and reassures them that they are in a safe place where they will be heard and treated with respect.

Our blog post — “How to Choose a Dentist” — provides a general guide. But in addition to the advice given there, those who have dental anxiety should take some additional steps to ensure they’re found the dentist who can give the professional, yet compassionate treatment they need:

  • Read online reviews. Despite the best efforts of any medical professional, there will always be dissatisfied patients who leave a negative evaluation. But look for the overall tone of the reviews. If the majority say the dentist put them at ease, answered their questions, explained everything step-by-step and provided a pain-free experience, this is a dentist to consider.
  • Schedule a consultation. Because this is only a meeting with the prospective dentist, some of the anxiety should be alleviated. Be honest with the dentist about your anxiety, and any specific anxiety triggers. Ask questions. You will know by the dentist’s demeanor and answers if he/she is able and willing to work with you. If you think the dentist is dismissive of your concerns or impatient, continue your search.

Our blog post — “Signs of Dental Anxiety and How to Control Them” — offers the following advice:

“Talk to your dentist and dental team about your feelings of anxiety. When you schedule your appointment, let the receptionist know that you’re nervous about dental visits. Remind the dentist and staff about your anxiety when you arrive. Also, tell the dentist if you have a low pain threshold, so the level of local anesthetic can be adjusted accordingly. Agree on a hand signal if you need to take a break during the exam or procedure.

Dr. Nilofer Khan — owner and General Dentist at NK Family Dental — focuses on easing the fears of patients dealing with anxiety. She will talk with you about the exam or procedure you have scheduled, and provide a supportive, calming spa-like environment throughout the treatment.”

Dr. Khan and our entire team welcome patients who experience dental anxiety. We will take the time to address your concerns — including ensuring you receive the type of anesthesia or sedation that is best for you in order to alleviate anxiety and prevent pain during treatment. At NK Family Dental, we strive to provide a calm, reassuring environment that puts every patient at ease. It is our mission to provide the highest quality and most compassionate oral care to our Chicago patients, including both dental and periodontal services. Our practice is trusted for advanced oral surgery procedures and comfortable root canal treatment.

Our team of experienced, dedicated dental professionals will help address your oral health concerns, and determine the best solution for you based on your individual situation. We strive to identify treatment options that fit your needs. Our dental specialists include Dr. Khan, our endodontist, Dr. Sabek, and our periodontist, Dr. Amir Danesh. Dr. Danesh is a board-certified periodontist and Diplomat of the American Board of Periodontology. He has contributed to the publication of two books, as well as published over 20 papers in prestigious dental research journals.

We serve the neighborhoods of Logan Square, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Wicker Park with the dedication that’s earned us the reputation as the Best Dentist in Chicago!

We understand that the main concern you may have is cost, which is why we accept all major PPO plans for dental insurance and also offer our in-house dental plan. Please see our financing page for more information.

Schedule your visit through ZocDoc, or contact us directly. We look forward to treating you soon!


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