Dental anxiety can lead to missed dental appointments or never seeing the dentist. This may lead to a decline in oral health.

If you have dental anxiety, you may experience an unsettled feeling in your stomach, trouble sleeping, or other signs of anxiety prior to a dental visit.

A dental phobia, or dentophobia, is an extreme fear of the dentist or appointments. It often causes a person to never visit the dentist.

Dental anxiety is described as the fear of seeking dental care, according to a large 2022 study. It’s also suggested to be one of the most common conditions affecting the global population.

The study indicates that dental anxiety occurs most commonly in lower socioeconomic groups, but it’s also very pronounced in people with higher levels of education. The study was conducted in a region of Pakistan, which means its results may not generalize to other areas of the world.

Another survey study conducted in 2017 shared similar definitions of dental anxiety as the 2022 study above. They defined dental anxiety as a physical or emotional response to a perceived threat.

In other words, people with dental anxiety may develop the condition due to fear of pain from injections or scraping teeth. They may also fear bad news, such as the presence of a cavity or other condition.

Dental anxiety can lead to missed or never going to a dentist for checkups and cleanings.

In their study, the researchers found a prevalence of about 19% among those surveyed in three different dental settings. The prevalence rate is similar to previous study’s findings that they reported on.

What’s the difference between dental anxiety and dental phobia?

Scientific literature often lumps dental anxiety and phobia into the same studies. But a 2016 review breaks anxiety and phobia into more distinct entities.

They define dental anxiety as worry at the thought of visiting the dentist. It’s the emotion that precedes the actual visit and may be the fifth most common cause of anxiety.

Dental fear or phobia is described as the reaction to a perceived threat in the dentist’s office. It leads to the fight, flight, or freeze response. The researchers describe it as an intense, persistent, and unrealistic response to the perceived threat.

A 2022 study notes a distinction between dental anxiety, fear, and phobia as follows:

  • Dental anxiety: A common reaction to an unknown danger that can affect anyone. It often occurs if a dentist plans to do something to a person that they’ve never experienced before.
  • Dental fear: A reaction to a known event or treatment. A person with fear knows what the dentist plans to do and is nervous about what is going to come.
  • Dental phobia: A type of specific phobia characterized by a persistent, strong, and unrealistic fear of a specific stimulus that leads a person to completely avoid the perceived threat. People with dental phobia typically avoid the dentist at all costs.

Still, both dental anxiety and phobia can lead to missed dental appointments or avoiding the dentist altogether, which may affect a person’s oral health.

Evidence suggests that dental anxiety and phobia can lead to missed appointments or complete avoidance of the dentist’s office. The anxiety or fear is due to a perceived threat of harm either due to past experiences or worry about what might happen.

Some evidence suggests this creates a vicious cycle of dental fear, which can be broken down into four stages:

  1. dental fear
  2. delayed visits
  3. dental problems
  4. symptom-driven treatment

But, a 2023 study found different results. In their study of about 500 people, researchers noted that higher levels of dental anxiety did not correlate with diminishing oral health in terms of:

  • gingivitis disease
  • fillings in teeth
  • missing teeth
  • decay scores

They suggest additional studies may be needed to fully understand how dental anxiety affects oral health.

Dental anxiety and phobia often get grouped together in studies and medical literature. It can make separating out symptoms of dental anxiety a bit more challenging.

Though everyone is different, a person with dental anxiety may experience symptoms similar to other anxiety disorders as a dentist appointment approaches. Some possible anxiety symptoms may include:

  • trouble sleeping
  • abdominal distress or nausea
  • racing heart
  • a sense of impending danger or doom
  • unexplained sweating
  • shaking or tremors
  • trouble concentrating on tasks

If you have a general sense of uneasiness as a dental appointment approaches, you may have dental anxiety. But if it causes you to have severe reactions or to take steps to avoid the appointment, you may have a dental fear or phobia.

Dental anxiety occurs when a person experiences symptoms of anxiety in response to an impending dentist appointment.

The exact cause of dental anxiety may vary between people. In general, it’s a fear of the unknown.

Approaching a checkup, you may feel anxious about what bad or uncomfortable things may happen, such as:

  • having cavities
  • needing to get drilled
  • getting told bad news about your dental health
  • uncomfortable or painful cleaning
  • getting nicked by the scraper

In some cases, a person’s dental anxiety may come from a fear or associated costs of care.

Potential causes of dental phobia can include:

  • previous, bad dental experiences
  • history of sexual or physical violence
  • previous negligence of a dentist that causes damage or pain
  • post-traumatic stress
  • family history of the phobia
  • a genetic disposition toward inheriting phobias

No single therapy can effectively manage dental anxiety or dentophobia.

Dental anxiety is generally milder compared to phobia, so you may not need a formal treatment.

Some possible ways to manage dental anxiety include:

  • learn and practice breathing techniques
  • try meditation or meditative exercises, such as yoga
  • bring a fidget toy or object to the dentist’s chair
  • see if you can speak with the dentist before an appointment to help ease concerns

Dentophobia is a bit more severe and may involve complete avoidance of anything to do with dental care.

Some studies suggest that therapies, such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy may work. In one model, a person would go through several steps involving dentist interviews, CBT, sedatives, and eventual transition to general dentistry.

If you suspect you have a dental phobia, you may want to speak to a mental health care professional or a primary care doctor who can refer you to a specialist. A mental health therapist should be able to help treat the phobia.

Dental anxiety is a common condition that affects a large number of people. It consists of a general fear or concern over the unknown related to going to the dentist office. It can be mild where you feel a bit tense before going to the dentist, or it can be more severe and result in you missing or never scheduling appointments.

Dental phobia is a type of fear based around going to the dentist. It can cause a person to experience strong reactions at the thought of going to the dentist and lead to never going and potentially neglecting dental care altogether.

If they cause you to miss appointments, it can potentially lead to worsening dental health, though some studies disagree on how much damage may be done.

Management can involve self-help strategies, such as breathing exercises, or may require therapy or formal treatment.

If you suspect you may have dental phobia, you may want to speak with a healthcare professional or seek mental health services to help address your anxiety or fears.