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Dental Phobia

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Does the thought of going to the dentist send cold shivers down your spine? Do you do everything you can to avoid making an appointment? Have you been willing to endure toothaches, abcesses and tooth loss rather than see a dentist? These situations are charactertic of a dental phobia. If these questions hit home, you are not alone and, like all of the others with this condition, you are avoiding the dentist at all costs, even your health.

Case:

“The first time this woman was taken to the dentist, she was eleven years old. She still had several baby teeth and they had become infected. The dentist extracted the teeth and all seemed well until several days later when she started to hemorrhage. Her parents treated the bleeding problem at home instead of having her return to the dentist’s office.

Three years later, at age 14, she was sent to a dentist for her first oral checkup. She was in the waiting room without her family but with other children, all of whom sat around talking about this dentist and all the excruciating pain and horrifying procedures he had inflicted on them or others. Whether these stories were true or just so much adolescent exaggerated story telling, she took all of it very seriously. Finally, she fled the office, refusing to see the dentist again. From that time on, she became phobic about dentists and did not return for many years into her adulthood. Her fear was palpable and included panic attacks caused by the mere thought of being in the dentist’s chair.”

This case illustrates how many people develop this phobia. Either people have a traumatic dental experience or hear about or witness someone else being traumatized by dental work. As is true with most phobias, if there is a pre existing tendency toward anxiety, the likelihood of becoming phobic is often increased.

Ignoring oral health is not only a cosmetic problem but a life threatening problem as well. It is a well established fact that dental hygiene and overall physical health are directly related. For example, there are oral infections that can lead to heart attack or generalized infection. That is why finding ways of reducing fear of the dentist is so important.

What can you do, or, what can you advise family and friends to do, if they suffer with this crippling fear?

1. When looking for a good dentist, be sure to interview him before making any appointment for treatment. Ask to meet with him and discuss your fears and how he helps fearful people. This is something dentists  deal with frequently. Learn what he does to reduce fear. Be sure that the dentist helps you feel comfortable during the interview and avoid selecting him if there is even a hint of him being someone who doesn’t care, is too busy to listen to you or can’t be bothered. If you are not satisfied with the answers the dentist gives you, find someone else.

2. Make certain that you have control over the dental procedures. When I was a child, my dentist and I had an arrangement where, if I was in pain or discomfort, I would raise my hand and he would stop. It helped enormously because I knew he would pay attention to me. It is vitally important that the dentist becomes someone you can trust.

3. Nitrous Oxide used during the procedures helps you to relax and modern anesthetics and painkillers make the experience much more comfortable.

4. If your dentist uses head phones for listening to music, they are helpful because they distract attention from what is being done. Remember, headphones are better than the speakers in the office because they work more directly to distract you. If he does not have headphones, ask if you can bring your own Ipod or the equivalent and use ear buds.

5. Do anything you can to ensure you have a sense of control over the experience. This is why it’s important to ask about things like nitrous oxide, pain management, signaling to stop and music.

Remind yourself that you share this fear with plenty of others. Some of the most confident men and women melt when they suffer from this fear.  When it comes to dental phobia, there is comfort in numbers because you can remind yourself that this is nothing to feel ashamed about and you are not alone.

What are your experiences with dentists?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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