dental care

Dental Phobia
Overcoming Your Fears

Dental phobia is one of the biggest challenges that keep people from getting good dental health care.

Though it may not seem like a serious problem to those who think dental care is a breeze, it is actually a very serious problem among those affected by the phobia. A phobia is often defined as an irrational fear, and in most cases, it often gets extreme.

Dental phobia has affected around 15% of the total number of Americans who unfortunately has missed out on proper dental care due to their extreme, unexplained fears. And a bigger number of Americans suffer from milder forms of the phobia.

The condition is reportedly more common among younger people and among women. This is essentially a psychological and behavioral problem, but it easily becomes a physical problem once the person starts experiencing dental problems and is not able to seek proper treatment.

Here’s what you need to know about dental phobia and how to deal with it.

How to Understand It

A few things to know to understand dental phobia:

  • The Facts on the Dental Phobia
  • Causes of the Unexplained Fear
  • Diagnosis of the Phobia

1. The Facts On The Phobia

Dental PhobiaDental phobia, by definition, is an unexplained fear of dentistry and of seeking dental care. It is also known as dentophobia or odontophobia. It can also be manifest in fear of anything related to dental care, even material objects.

In mild forms, the affected person usually experiences anxiety and hesitation in facing dental treatment, but it is not as invasive as more severe forms of the phobia. In moderate forms, the phobia may cause panic attacks. In extreme cases, the fear may be paralyzing and can cause serious trauma.

Aside from the short-term effects of the phobia, it can also have effects on a person’s entire life. People who suffer from dentophobia usually spend a lot of time thinking and stressing about their teeth and dental care. Some cases of the phobia can also be an effect or a related symptom of certain psychiatric conditions, such as general anxiety disorders and depression.

2. Causes Of The Unexplained Fear

Most cases of the phobia are triggered by any dental experience that is severely painful to the point of being traumatic. This is further reinforced by negative experiences or comments that they hear from other people. Some cases are also attributed to dentists who are indifferent and insincere, and some reported cases were also related to negative remarks from dentists.

Also, in most cases, only dental emergencies are effective in making dental phobic people seek the treatment they need. But by the time they seek treatment, the problems could already be worse and their treatment will be more challenging than usual. The situation then goes around in a vicious cycle where the treatment the phobic person sought further reinforced the fear they already felt.

3. Diagnosis Of Dental Anxiety

Phobia of dental care is often diagnosed using a fear measurement instrument like Corah’s Dental Anxiety Scale or the Modified Dental Anxiety Scale. These tests help measure the level of fear you feel when faced with thoughts or the prospect of going to the dentist.

Treatment

Due to its detrimental effects, dental phobia is considered a serious condition that requires treatment.

Dental phobia is treated using various behavioral treatments, and there are also a lot of special clinics that can help people handle their phobias. Treatment of the phobia usually involve dentists and psychologists who work together to help people overcome their dental fears.

Behavioral treatments often involve techniques that help people relax; some examples are progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises. Systematic desensitization is also an effective method of overcoming the phobia.

This means that the patient is first taken through relaxation techniques, then gradually exposed to an object associated with dental care, and the patient will be encouraged to use the relaxation techniques he or she learned to find relief from the fear.

Aside from that, other treatment options include cognitive treatments that guide people’s psychological health in fighting the fears. As supplementary treatments, dentists also use pharmacological techniques such as sedation, anesthetics, and medications that help relieve anxiety.

Common Fears and Possible Techniques

One method that a dentist can use to help patients overcome their fears is to first isolate the specific fear.

What is it, exactly, that the patient is afraid of? This may have to be discussed thoroughly.

  • Fear of the unknown This is a very generic fear, and it’s the reason why so many people are against changing careers and embracing new ideas. It’s why many people are afraid of death (a fear which affects 68% of the population) and why they mistrust strangers. They simply don’t know about what comes next, and such fears can then trigger a flight or fight response.

In cases that involve visiting a dental office, the fear may be about not knowing much about the dentist at all. So if the patient is extremely anxious then the first part of the visit should be simply a meeting between the dentist and the patient. Keep the door open so that any feeling of claustrophobia is also alleviated.

With this meeting, the dentist can then take the time to introduce himself or herself to the patient. They can talk about the dentist’s background, which dental school they went to, and even talk about things like what they do on weekends.

This fear of the unknown can also be about the treatment, so the dentist can also explain fully what the patient can expect during the procedure. They can show a video of how it’s done, and so on.

  • Fear of dental instruments. Dental instruments don’t really have a very comforting reputation. They’re sharp, made of metal, cold and look very strange to patients. Nobody really relishes having these things near their person, especially not inside the mouth.

A dentist can assuage these fears by having the patient hold the dental instruments first. By holding the tools in their hands, patients may come to view them as not so monstrously strange after all.

The dentist may even explain what each tool does, so that the patient is reassured of the need for these instruments.

Maybe in their subconscious they think these are torture devices, so knowing that these are actually meant to make them better can help manage their phobia.

  • Sensitive gag reflex. Patients with this condition really hate the part when they have to let those tabs inside their mouth when dental X-rays are taken. Fortunately, many modern dental offices these days don’t have this problem because they already have panoramic X-rays that don’t involve placing these tabs inside the mouth.
  • Scary dentist. Even if the dentist is familiar, they may still look cold and intimidating. So it really pays to be pleasant, friendly and have good “bedside manners” so to speak.

A study published in the European Journal of Oral Science demonstrated that dental fear can be reduced significantly through empathy and humor. The dentist should lighten up the mood with a little joke now and then.

This light mood and humor can reduce the stress, improve the well-being of the patient, and result in a more pleasant atmosphere. The point is to make the patient see the dentist as an equal, instead of a superior to be feared.

On the other hand, this can be a problem if it is hard to gauge the sense of humor of the patient. And not every dentist has a sense of humor either.

  • Fear of frightening noises. We’re all naturally afraid of sudden loud noises. And the sound of the drill doesn’t exactly sooth the nerves either. Even when the noise is not frightening, it can be very aggravating.

This can be overcome by earplugs, or by noise-canceling headphones. Relaxing music that matches the patient’s taste in music can also help.

  • Fear of the Dentist’s Chair. There are two possible reasons for this fear or for the discomfort brought about by so simple a position. One is merely physical, such as they have a back problem or they simply don’t find the position physically comfortable. To counter this, the dentist can use positioning pillows that can help alleviate the discomfort.

The other possible reason is psychological. When they lie back, patients may feel exposed or helpless.

This again induces a “flight or fight” response common in phobias. But perhaps the dentist can simply place the patient half-back, instead of fully lying down on the chair. This may entail more discomfort for the dentist, however.

  • Inability to breathe through the nose. Some people are simply used to breathing through their mouths. So when a dentist works on their teeth, this becomes difficult or even impossible, and the patient seems to suffocate. The dentist can compensate by applying nasal strips, which can help patients breathe through their noses instead.

In some cases, the use of nitrous oxide may be necessary.

In all these cases, it’s assumed that the dentist wants to help the patient overcome their dental fears.

Not every dentist is as conscientious, however. Sometimes there’s not enough time to identify the particular fear, or the dentist may not have the personality needed to help with the patient’s phobia.

Coping Methods

But in some cases, patients can actually help themselves cope with the problem.

A study undertaken by researchers from the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden discovered 5 coping techniques usually used by patients.

So if you’re a patient, see if these techniques can help:

  1. Distracting yourself. While the dentist goes about treating your dental problems, you can do mental games so that you don’t think about what’s going on. This can be as simple as counting in multiples of 7 or 11. Or you can do word games. If you know more than one language, you can mentally translate a favorite poem or song from one language to another.
  2. Distancing. This is a mental technique in which you tell yourself that the sensation or pain is something else.
  3. Praying. A very long prayer can really distract your mind. For example, if you’re a Catholic you can pray the rosary during treatment.
  4. Self-encouragement. This is a common technique among athletes and other performers, when they tell themselves to be strong.
  5. Optimism. You tell yourself that everything will be alright in the end. You can perhaps imagine the good things that will happen, such as having nice straight teeth when you leave the clinic.

Just remember, when it comes to overcoming dental fears, if you’re a patient you can’t just rely on others to help. You have to do your part and help yourself as well.

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