Dental anxiety is a term used to describe a common condition whereby patients feel fear, anxiety or stress when in a dental setting. The degree of fear can vary, from general unease to experiencing a panic attack at the thought of a dental visit, and it can be associated with triggers including needles, drills or the general dental setting. Dental phobia is a severe form of dental anxiety that can result in irrational fear and the complete avoidance of going to the dentist at all.
When dental anxiety prevents you from seeking regular dental treatment, it can increase your risk of gum disease and other dental problems. Unfortunately, people with dental phobia also have a higher risk of early tooth loss, damaged teeth, and they may also suffer from poorer health in general.
Recognising that there is a problem is the first step, however there are other strategies that you and your dentist can undertake in order to help ease some of the symptoms. Here are our top tips for dealing with dental anxiety.
Who can be affected by dental anxiety?
Dental anxiety is actually quite common and can affect people of any age group. Children who have a bad dental experience can often overcome their fear if future dental visits are well managed, however adults who have had a negative experience can often remain anxious throughout life.
There are a number of strategies that can help reduce dental anxiety, however dental phobia may require your dentist to work with your doctor or other health professionals in order to manage it.
What are the signs and symptoms of dental anxiety?
There isn’t really a clear boundary that separates dental anxiety from dental phobia, as everyone has fears that they cope with in different ways. However, most patients with dental anxiety routinely miss dental appointments, and may find it difficult undergoing dental treatment, regardless of whether it’s a routine check-up or an appointment that requires a complex dental procedure. Symptoms that people with dental anxiety may experience include:
- Trouble sleeping the night before a dental appointment
- Increased sweating and nervousness
- Withdrawal, or using humour or aggression to mask anxiety
- Racing heartbeat (tachycardia) or palpitations
- Visible distress, crying or signs of panic
- Low blood pressure and possible fainting (syncope)
- Trouble breathing when objects are placed in the mouth during a dental appointment
What are some of the causes of dental anxiety?
Individuals can develop both dental anxiety and phobias for many different reasons, including:
- Previous dental pain
- Trust issues or fear of helplessness and loss of control
- Embarrassment caused by self-consciousness
- A traumatic dental or healthcare experience
- Previous trauma to the head and neck
- Generalised anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
- The view that the mouth is a personal area and accessing the mouth is an invasion of personal space
- Anxiety associated with other conditions such as agoraphobia, claustrophobia or obsessive compulsive disorder where there is an obsession around cleanliness
How does dental anxiety affect your health?
Many of the issues associated with dental disease are preventable and/or lifestyle-related. If you suffer from dental anxiety and therefore avoid going to the dentist, you are not only missing out on the opportunity to learn more about oral health, you may need more complex treatments when you finally do attend. Regular cleans, dental check-ups and X-rays can help screen for problems, prevent dental disease and assist your dentist with alleviating problems early.
Avoiding dental appointments can also feed the underlying problem of anxiety and increase the risk of dental phobia. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘vicious cycle of dental anxiety’.
How can I deal with dental anxiety?
The first step towards dealing with dental anxiety is acknowledging that you have a problem – it is often difficult to overcome an issue if you are ignoring it. The next step is to discuss your anxieties with someone else, be it a friend, family member or colleague, which can help you realise that you are not alone in your fears.
In terms of staying calm at the dentist, talking to your dental practitioner can also help. All dentists essentially want their patients to be comfortable, and they are skilled at putting nervous patients at ease. Helpful approaches can include explaining in detail any procedures or treatments required, showing you the equipment that will be used, and enlisting other strategies that can help you to remain calm.
An open and honest discussion about your individual triggers can also help your dentist tailor a treatment plan for you to help you with overcoming dental fear. Coping techniques while at your appointment can include:
- deep breathing
- guided imagery
- using a stress ball
- progressive muscle relaxation
- distraction (for example, listening to music or the use of TV screens)
What if I have dental phobia?
Severe dental anxiety or dental phobia may require more serious intervention, however many of these can significantly improve a dental experience. These include:
- Relative analgesia (happy gas). Nitrous oxide is administered via a mask fitted to your face and after breathing it in you will feel pleasantly relaxed but still awake. It takes affect within a few minutes and it also wears off quickly. You will be able to talk to your dentist and hear what they say, however you won’t necessarily remember everything once the visit is over!
- Anxiety relieving medication (oral anxiolytic tablets). These are prescribed by doctors or dentists and a single, short-acting dose is normally taken an hour before your dental appointment.
- Conscious sedation (twilight sedation). This involves receiving medication through a drip and intravenous (IV) sedation needs to be administered by a dental sedationist or an anaesthetist in a specialised practice or hospital. Under sedation you may drift off into a light sleep but you will be able to respond to verbal prompts. Side effects may include nausea and drowsiness.
- General anaesthesia. This is generally carried out in a hospital setting by a dentist and an anaesthetist, and involves patients being ‘fully asleep’. Possible side effects include nausea and a longer recovery period, and patients will also normally also require pre- and post-operative visits to the dentist. General anaesthetic works best when used in conjunction with other strategies, so that some treatments can be done without it. This ensures that the general anaesthetic session time is kept for treatments that patients find the most difficult to cope with.
Feeling anxious about your next dental appointment? The friendly staff at Australia Dental can help! Contact us on (07) 3888 9125 or (07) 3284 7112.