Managing Dental Anxiety
Fear of going to the dentist is a common health-care related anxiety. Patients often express a broad range of triggers, such as the fear of pain, claustrophobia, needles, sounds, or sensations. Unfortunately, long term avoidance of oral healthcare can lead to deeply debilitating problems that can be physically, psychologically and socially impactful. Our mouth represents a center point for our survival, by impacting our ability to eat comfortably and communicate. So, caring for this immensely important part of our bodies is crucial for both our general health and psychological wellbeing.
Often minor dental problems can be easily ignored. Many people may be aware that something feels wrong or isn’t right in their mouths. It might be an area where food becomes stuck, it could be a sharp or rough part of a tooth, or it could be the experience of sensitivity to hot, cold or sweet foods. It may simply manifest as a general feeling of irrigation around the gums. Unfortunately, most minor dental problems tend to progress to major dental problems with time and ignoring small issues can culminate into a larger and more impactful concern.
There are many aspects of dental treatment recognized as specific causes or triggers of anxiety. Undergoing dental treatment is a very multi-sensory experience. There is the feeling associated with having the teeth, lips, cheeks tongue and gums touched. There is the sound of the drill and suction. There is the taste of the gloves, instruments, and materials, the sight of the tools and instruments, and the smell that every dental practice seems to have. For some people, this can culminate in an overwhelming experience.
For others, it is a specific part of the dental experience that induces their anxiety. The most common of these are the fear of needles or injections, the sound or feel of the drill, and the experience of people within their personal space. In many cases, a previous dental experience (often as a child) has become the nucleus of the anxiety. In these circumstances, many patients report that the experience of pain and the feeling of powerlessness are the areas of greatest concern.
Unpacking common dental anxieties
It’s difficult to address something that can’t be identified. Exploring and unpacking the negativity associated with any previously difficult experience(s) is the first step. Sometimes this is best done with a counselor or psychologist, depending of the severity of the trauma. However, opening up to a friend or family member that is available to accompany and support you throughout any interactions with a dentist can also be very important. The outcome that you are trying to achieve is to be able to identify and articulate the components of dental treatment that you find difficult, so that these many be carefully minimized or avoided.
Anxiety associated with experiencing pain can be one of the easiest phobias to address. Often this has developed as a result of experiencing unexpected pain during a dental procedure. This may have been when a filling was being placed, or a tooth was being removed, and typically causes tense anticipation and fear during subsequent dental interactions.
The use of local anesthesia and local anesthesia placement techniques have developed considerably. There are many strategies and approaches that we commonly take to ensure “profound anesthesia” prior to undertaking a procedure. Clinically, it is often appropriate to take a trust-building approach with patients who carry this form of anxiety, where we aim to complete simple procedures in a pain-free manner in order to build a patient’s confidence and experience with the normal sensations associated with dental treatment.
Needle phobia can also be easily mitigated. Many dental procedures can be performed without the need of anesthesia, and there are new non-traditional forms of delivering local anesthesia that don’t involve a conventional syringe. Utilizing local anesthetic delivery devices can allow a patient to receive profound anesthesia painlessly. This technique is commonly combined with the use of a topical anesthetic that pre-numbs the area which needs to be anesthetized.