How to Manage Dental Anxiety
Do trips to the dentist make you uneasy or stress you out? It is not strange to feel anxious or even fearful before taking a seat in the dentist’s chair. In fact, roughly 15 percent of Americans avoid the dentist as a result of fear.
Where does dental anxiety come from? Michelle DeFelice, DDS, of St. John’s Family Dentistry in St. Augustine, FL, says dental fear is usually rooted in one of two pre-existing conditions – “needle phobia” or memories of past negative dental experiences. “So, whatever procedure they had trouble with seems to be the one that they are then most nervous about,” says Dr. DeFelice. She says root canals usually cause patients to get the most worked up, and they tend to have a “bad rap.”
Robert Matlock, DDS, MAGD, of Matlock General Dentistry in Rogers, Ark., agrees. He considers root canals to be the No. 1 high-anxiety procedure, followed by teeth extraction.
Here are six useful tips to effectively reduce dental anxiety:
1. Communicate with your dentist beforehand.
Figure out how high your anxiety level is and make it known. Develop a “talking with hands” system of communicating with the dentist before he begins the procedure. Be sure to ask your dentist any lingering questions and let him know how you are feeling, so he is aware and can take your anxiety into account throughout the whole process.
2. Take your kids to the dentist early.
Dr. Matlock says about 99 percent of his patients with dental anxiety are children. It’s important to condition children to have a healthy, consistent experience at the dentist.
Matlock says it is important to take children to the dentist before there is a recognizable need. “In other words, go in for a checkup; don’t take them to get work done yet.” Early exposure can help children to become acquainted with the office, dentist’s chair and the equipment so they can feel more comfortable if they ever do need a more serious procedure.
“Then it becomes a fun time,” he says, “It’s all about that first impression.”
The earlier a child visits the dentist for the first time, the better. According to the Pennsylvania Dental Association, parents should make sure to schedule regular checkups every six months. This will create a high comfort level for the child and will obviously sustain good oral health.
DeFelice says the main guideline to follow is the new recommendation from the Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, encouraging parents to start taking kids to the dentist at age 1.
“This allows us to see a child before they have a chance to have any preconceived negative thoughts about dentistry,” says DeFelice. “I also recommend people discuss the dental visit as little as possible, especially if they are phobic themselves.”
3. Don’t instill fear in your kids about the dentist.
Sometimes, it is easy for parents to say, “Don’t worry, the dentist won’t hurt you.” However, Matlock says this is the worst thing parents can do because it makes the child think there is a possibility of pain.
“Besides that, you’ll have siblings or kids at school say, ‘Oh, you have to go to the dentist!’” says Matlock.
Parents who have unfortunate experiences at the doctor during their own childhood tend to be anxious as adults, according to Matlock, causing their children to be afraid as well.
It’s best for parents to let go of any negative memories from the dentist and to talk to children in a positive manner about it, reports the PDA. Kid should know dentist visits helps them to have healthy teeth for the rest of their lives.
According to the PDA, there are creative ways for parents to help children work through dental anxiety, including:
- Reading a fun children’s book about going to see the dentist
- Encouraging kids to use their imagination, such as pretending the dentist chair is a space shuttle on a mission
- Setting a good example by performing basic dental hygiene at home
And non-recommended techniques are:
- Bribing kids to go to the dentist or using it as a punishment
- Allowing others to share frightening experiences with their children
4. Perform relaxation and distraction techniques to calm your nerves.
First of all, scheduling dentist appointments during a time where you are not rushed is ideal, such as the evening or over the weekend. The PDA advises patients who are bothered by sounds in a dentist office to bring a headset with calming music.
The PDA even recommends using visualization techniques. Using the imagination to take you somewhere else mentally, like the beach, can bring you into a calmer state of mind. It may also be relaxing to share fears with other people in the office because they will most often help make you feel more at ease.
If possible, using distractions like watching TV or listening to the radio during dental procedures can calm the mind. Breaks can be given to patients during longer procedures to lower anxiety.
DeFelice says people usually calm their nerves once they get to the office, even during root canals. “Individual people have all different ways to try to calm themselves down,” says DeFelice. “I find that once they come to our office and the injection isn’t uncomfortable, the root canal is uneventful and the staff is pleasant, they realize that dentistry ‘isn’t a big deal’ anymore and naturally relax.”
5. Take relaxers prescribed by your dentist.
Matlock says all patients will be a little nervous before more serious procedures, but if someone truly needs medication to relax, he prefers giving them Valum or Ativan. However, this is only necessary during major procedures.
“If you’re going to have a lot of teeth removed or dentures put in, that’s a really good time,” says Matlock. “But there’s very little need for medication like that.”
However, DeFelice says that if someone is convinced that they will not be able to handle the stress during a procedure, she will give them nitrous oxide and oral sedatives “to get them over the hump” or the start of the process.
6. Try Sedation Dentistry.
Sedation dentistry is when a patient receives dental care under complete or partial loss of consciousness. However, this is usually only necessary when a patient completely refuses dental care because she is highly anxious or afraid.
Matlock says in over 40 years of dentistry, he never had a need to perform sedation dentistry on a patient.
DeFelice says her office will be starting to offer it within the next few months. “We have ordered the equipment and done the training for sedation dentistry,” she says. “There is a certain segment of the population that are so phobic that that is the only way that they are able to get care.”