Visiting the dentist is rarely something a patient looks forward to. But for some, it can cause genuine fear and stress. This is so common today that there is a term used for it: dental anxiety.
Patients who experience dental anxiety may feel discouraged about seeing their dentist and fail to get the care they need. If you find yourself suffering from dental anxiety, we’ve got the background, tips and solutions you need to ensure you keep your mouth healthy with less stress involved.
Dental anxiety and dental phobia are sometimes used interchangeably; however, there are important distinctions.
Dental anxiety refers to a common unease, fear and/or stress related to dentist visits. Dental phobia refers to a more severe (and less common) condition that causes irrational fear and usually avoidance of visiting the dentist until an emergency occurs.
Dental anxiety can stem from various causes, including other existing mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder and depression, as well as the following:
Prior trauma to the head and/or neck
Prior trauma experienced in a dental healthcare or regular healthcare setting
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Fear of losing control
The symptoms of dental anxiety vary greatly from person to person and include a number of mental and physiological symptoms that may reveal themselves before or during a dental visit.
In the days leading up to an appointment, you may experience strong feelings of nerves and stress or have trouble sleeping and eating. Those with severe anxiety or phobia may even cancel their dental appointment or fail to show up on the scheduled day and time.
Throughout the dental exam and cleaning, you may experience the following symptoms:
Low blood pressure
Feeling like you’re going to faint
Dental anxiety is relatively common and affects people of any age, from small children who are new to the experience, all the way to seniors who’ve been to dozens of dental appointments over their lifetime. The fear of the unknown, the scary-looking tools, the prospect of feeling “trapped” in the chair and other aspects of a dental appointment can all contribute to worry and dread.
The severity of anxiety differs from one person to the next, but in general, severe dental phobia is far less common.
Most oral health problems are related to lifestyle, and are therefore preventable. But in order to prevent them, you must see your dentist regularly.
Unfortunately, those who experience dental anxiety or phobia are less likely to do so because of the fear and stress it causes. Professionals can identify potential issues — like cavities or gum disease — and resolve them before they become severe. When left unchecked, these will require more extensive, and possibly more painful, treatment down the road.
There are many ways to manage dental anxiety. Determine which of the following will work best for you.
If your dentist doesn’t know you have dental anxiety, they can’t take the proper measures to make you feel more safe and comfortable. You should have trust with your dentist and be open about your fears and triggers. They may also be able to refer you to a psychologist that specializes in this type of anxiety.
Some patients with dental anxiety swear by relaxation techniques. Try meditation, deep breathing, or guided imagery (visualizing positive scenarios, like sitting on a warm beach) to calm the nervous system while you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair.
If sitting with your own thoughts doesn’t help, bring comfort and distraction items, like a weighted blanket, a book, a game or headphones to listen to your favorite music or a podcast. Not only will they help focus your attention elsewhere, they can make you feel more comfortable and secure while the dentist and assistants do their work.
A parent, spouse or close friend can serve the same purpose of distraction and comfort. They can sit next to you, hold your hand or simply keep you busy in conversation (of course, they’ll do more of the talking) during your appointment. Simply knowing another person is there for you can do a lot to keep your mind at ease.
If the dental exam or procedure will take long, you can request to take breaks when it makes sense. Again, speak to your dentist beforehand so they can plan for these breaks in advance — or, if you prefer, agree on a hand signal for you to use when you need to stop for a moment.
For those with dental anxiety or phobia, getting through a dental appointment is a huge accomplishment. A great method for motivating yourself is to have a special treat ready for you after you leave the dentist’s office. It could be as simple as a coffee from your favorite shop or as extravagant as a new pair of shoes — whatever your budget allows for and will incentivize you to show up for the appointment.
In instances of severe dental anxiety, or certain procedures, your dentist may prescribe or provide certain sedative medications that put you to sleep or keep you relaxed.
More familiarly known as nitrous oxide or “laughing gas,” analgesia is administered through a mask fitted to your face. Throughout the procedure, you will breathe a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide, keeping you awake but relaxed. You’ll be able to talk to the dentist but may not remember all of what was said, and the effects wear off quickly once the mask is removed.
Anxiolytic medications are oral medications for relieving anxiety and may be prescribed by a dentist or doctor to help you relax during an appointment. Typically, a small single dose is suggested to be taken an hour before the appointment. While the medication is short-acting, you’ll need someone to drive you home afterward, as some of the sedative will still be in your body, affecting your reaction time and ability to operate a vehicle.
You should not take an anxiolytic medication until you’ve spoken to your dentist or doctor.
While anxiolytic medications are given in pill form, conscious sedation is intravenous, administered through a drip placed into a vein in the arm or hand. Under this type of sedation, you are relaxed and may even fall asleep. It’s possible to feel drowsy or nauseous afterward, so you should plan for someone to drive you home. Keep in mind that not all dental practices offer this kind of sedation, and certain pre-existing conditions may prevent your ability to have IV sedation.
Finally, some patients may be recommended to go through treatment under general anesthesia, which must be carried out in a hospital setting by both a dentist — who must have specialized training — and an anesthetist. This is taken very seriously, so you’ll need both a pre-op and post-op visit to the dentist, as well as an anesthetist assessment. Side effects tend to last longer, so once again, you’ll need to find a friend or family member to drive you home. Patients are typically urged to use other methods for basic appointments and procedures, and reserve anesthesia for lengthier, more extensive treatments.
Be sure to check your dental insurance plan before planning general anesthesia, as not all plans cover this benefit.
It’s always important to find a dentist you feel comfortable with, but especially for patients who suffer from dental anxiety or phobia. Make sure your preferred dentist is in network with your dental insurance plan.
Explore your options for affordable dental insurance with Spirit and get the care you need from someone you trust.