Since April is Stress Awareness Month, it is fitting to discuss why some individuals may avoid regular dental checkups. It is not unusual to have a little anxiety when it is time to visit the dentist. Most people do. When that anxiety gets out of hand and causes you to avoid going to the dentist altogether, you may be suffering from dental phobia, also known as dentophobia, which is fear of dentists. This is a common phobia and can be related to other phobias. Dentophobia affects people of all ages and ranges from mild to severe.
Dental Anxiety vs. Dentophobia
Often the terms dental anxiety and dental phobia are used interchangeably. In both instances, an individual who suffers from either may avoid seeking necessary dental care. Dentophobia is not as common as dental anxiety, and it is more severe. According to some sources, about 2.7% of men and 4.6% of women suffer from dentophobia.
Patients suffering from dental anxiety often report feelings of stress, unease or fear when thinking about going to the dental office. These feelings can be caused by a variety of factors. For some people, the anxiety is triggered by the office itself. Others are afraid of needles. Some patients have issues with feelings of lack of control while they are in the dental chair.
When a person has not been to the dentist for years, the anticipation of what they may learn about their oral health may cause feelings of apprehension. Feelings of self-consciousness about decayed and/or missing teeth may cause the patient to feel anxious.
People have different ways of experiencing dental anxiety. You may notice an increase in your heart rate or you may begin to sweat more than normal. Depending on your level of anxiety, you may cancel or skip your dental appointment. Most patients experiencing dental anxiety still choose to see their dentist despite the discomfort of feeling nervous or stressed.
Patients with dentophobia feel totally overwhelmed and terrified even at the thought of going to the dentist. This condition is not as common as dental anxiety. People who experience dentophobia avoid going to the dentist altogether, or they may only go if they are experiencing severe dental pain.
Causes of Dental Anxiety and Dentophobia
Dentophobia is an irrational fear. Individuals suffering from the panic caused by the thought of going to the dentist usually need help in order to confront and overcome these terrifying feelings. It is often caused by the same things as dental anxiety:
- It can be triggered by a bad experience at a different dental practice
- Childhood memories of a bad experience in the dental office
- Horror stories of other people’s bad experiences with dentists
- Fear of the noises in the dental office
- Fear of the tools used, such as the dental drills
- Other phobias, such as claustrophobia
- Fear of needles
- Lack of control of the situation
For some individuals, the cause of their fear may be multifaceted. Others may have one bad experience to blame. The first step in overcoming it is to acknowledge your fear and understand why you have it.
Signs of Dentophobia
There are certain signs that indicate an individual may suffer from dentophobia. These include:
- Intensified feelings of nervousness as the appointment date gets closer
- Trouble eating or sleeping before the dental visit
- Feeling physically sick before your appointment
- Intense emotional feelings and/or crying before the appointment
- Panic attacks before or during the visit to the dentist
Experiencing these symptoms can cause you to cancel your appointment with the dentist or choose not to make one at all. Unfortunately, avoiding the dentist can lead to a variety of oral health issues that can have a negative impact on your general health and well-being.
Oral Health Suffers from Dentophobia
As you can imagine, avoiding the dentist at all costs can lead to issues with your oral health. Every year, about 30 to 40 million Americans avoid going to the dentist due to their phobia. That is between 9 to 15% of the population neglecting oral care, including the preventive care that could keep their teeth and gums healthy.
The negative impact on your oral health ranges from mild to severe. Without proper dental care, you are more likely to have:
- Cavities and tooth decay
- Chipped, broken or cracked teeth
- Gum disease
- Gum recession
- Mouth pain
- Tooth loss
Without dental care, you may have other dental-related issues that are being neglected, such as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ/TMD), sleep apnea, bruxism (teeth grinding) or oral cancer. If problems such as these go undiagnosed and untreated, you could experience severe pain and, in some instances, be putting your life at risk. The screening process for most of these issues is simple and in the case of oral cancer, and to a lesser extent sleep apnea, could save your life.
Dentophobia is a real problem that should be addressed, so you can achieve and maintain your oral health. The important thing to remember is that help is available. Whether you suffer from dental anxiety or have a true phobia, you can get help to overcome these feelings of anxiousness and dread.
Overcoming Your Dental Fears
Mild anxiety about going to the dentist is not as difficult to overcome. Deciding to go to the dentist and talking about your concerns is a good first step. Ask your dentist about sedation options if your anxiety seems to be more than you can handle. There are various levels of sedation available at some dental practices. Most will allow you to be awake during the procedure, while at the same time causing you to fully relax and feel comfortable.
Dentophobia may need more expansive treatment in order to overcome it. This condition may possibly be tied to an anxiety disorder. You may need a combination of therapies and/or medications in order to have a successful visit to the dentist. One of the most effective types of therapy for dentophobia is exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy involves visiting the dentist on a gradual basis. For example, your first visit to the office may be just to meet the dental team. You may have a partial dental exam on your second visit and perhaps have x-rays on the third. As you become more exposed to the dental setting, your phobia may subside.
Medications used in the treatment dentophobia do not, in and of themselves, make the problem go away. Some types of anti-anxiety medications can be used in conjunction with exposure therapy to help eliminate your symptoms. These medications can also help relieve some of the physical symptoms you may experience, such as high blood pressure.
When you decide to face your fears and make that visit to the dentist, there are things you can do to help you stay calm.
- Invite a friend or loved one to come with you. Most dentists will allow your companion to stay with your during your exam.
- Practice deep breathing or other meditation techniques to help you stay calm and grounded.
- Bring noise-cancelling headphones and your favorite calming music. Some dental practices supply headphones for you.
- Schedule your visit during quiet hours. Morning visits generally are less active than those later in the day and the office may be somewhat quieter.
- Schedule early in the day so you have less time to build up anxiety.
- Talk to your dentist about sedation options.
Dentophobia is a condition that can lead to serious dental problems if not addressed. Since your overall health is linked to your oral health, it is prudent to ensure that your teeth and gums are healthy. Getting the help you need to overcome your fear of going to the dentist could save your life. Oral cancers, infected teeth and unaddressed sleep apnea can lead to life-threatening situations if they are not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner.
At Aesthetic & Implant Dentistry of Atlanta, we are happy to work with our patients to help them have a pleasant and productive visit. We offer sedation dentistry to help you relax and feel comfortable. If you have dental anxiety or need help with dentophobia, talk to us and let us help you achieve your best oral health in a calm, relaxed environment.