There are people who would rather endure the excruciating pain of a toothache than pay their dentists a visit. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, about 25 million Americans refuse to get dental treatment due to fear. Millions of people prefer to live with their dental problems to avoid the procedures to fix them. Odontophobia is an irrational fear of dental surgery. Most people experience dental phobia due to the anticipation of the pain rather than the pain itself.
Based on studies, the most known cause of dental anxiety is the memory of an unpleasant experience, such as a cut lip, that occurred in the dentist’s chair. Children who were held down in a chair against their will, or whose protests of pain were ignored by their dentists, may also remember the feeling of helplessness and panic as adults.
There are two factors inherent to dentistry concerning dental phobia: the intrusive nature of the work and the patient’s loss of control. According to Dr. Matthew Messina, a spokesman for the American Dental Association, in order for him to treat his patients, he needs to get into their personal space. “I have to be closer to you than almost any other physician gets — at least while the patient is awake,” said Messina.
Since patients appear to be helpless while someone does unsettling things in their mouth, not only is the whole thing uncomfortable, but the ability to communicate verbally is lost. During the procedure, a patient is usually trapped in a chair with his jaws open, looking at the ceiling without being able to see what the dentist is doing — making it easier to envision a dreaded event.
Dental anxiety may have a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you try to avoid seeing your dentist, the worse the condition becomes. And when you finally have no choice but to go, the condition already requires more invasive procedures and potentially more pain. However, modern dentistry has recognized this problem with dental anxiety that they continue to develop new techniques to alleviate it. Techniques like simple relaxation and the use of sedatives are being endorsed by the American Dental Association.
Patients who are afraid of injections can now feel comfortable with smaller gauge needles and better techniques. While a wisdom tooth extraction and periodontal surgery can be so painful, technological breakthroughs make filling small cavities and routine extractions almost pain-free, with only minor discomfort after the anesthesia wears off.
According to Dr. Howard Weiner, a professor of behavioral science and dentistry at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, another effective way to control anxiety is to establish trust with your patients. Weiner has studied dental anxiety for 20 years.
When a dentist seems to be rushing and doesn’t take time to listen to a patient’s concerns. Patients become anxious regarding the risks of different treatments, such as the effectivity of anesthesia, the safety from the dental instruments being used, the fear of AIDS, among other worries. These stressful aspects of the experience may cause the patient to panic, said Weiner.
Over the years, patients’ fears have changed and evolved. But modern dentistry continues to develop various ways to handle these fears in a more creative and comfortable manner.