It is estimated that as many as 75% of US adults experience some degree of dental fear, from mild to severe. Approximately 5 to10 percent of U.S. adults are considered to experience dental phobia; that is, they are so fearful of receiving dental treatment that they avoid dental care at all costs. Many dentally fearful people will only seek dental care when they have a dental emergency, such as a toothache or dental abscess. People who are very fearful of dental care often experience a “cycle of avoidance,” in which they avoid dental care due to fear until they experience a dental emergency requiring invasive treatment, which can reinforce their fear of dentistry.
Women tend to report more dental fear than men, and younger people tend to report being more dentally fearful than older individuals. People tend to report being more fearful of more invasive procedures, such as oral surgery, than they are of less invasive treatment, such as professional dental cleanings, or prophylaxis.
Treatments for dental fear often include a combination of behavioral and pharmacological techniques. Specialized dental fear clinics, such as those at the University of Washington in Seattle and Göteborg University in Sweden, use both psychologists and dentists to help people learn to manage and decrease their fear of dental treatment. The goal of these clinics is to provide individuals with the fear management skills necessary for them to receive regular dental care with a minimum of fear or anxiety. While specialized clinics exist to help individuals manage and overcome their fear of dentistry, they are rare. Many dental providers outside of such clinics use similar behavioral and cognitive strategies to help patients reduce their fear.
Dental fear is very common; people should seek out a dentist who makes them feel comfortable so they can benefit from proper dentistry.
Chances are, visiting a dentist won't be nearly as painful as you expect. Surveys of patients before and after the most dreaded procedures -- such as a root canal endodontic or wisdom tooth extraction -- have found that they anticipated much more discomfort than they actually experienced, Milgrom says.
The root canal in particular gets a "bad rap" because it is typically preceded by painful toothaches, Milgrom says. The procedure itself relieves this pain, often in just a single visit. Wisdom tooth extractions get a bad name because of occasional jaw pain experienced several days afterwards, which can be treated with pills.
Still, even if your mind tells you you'll be just fine, your body may still fear that dentist's chair. Here are a few tips that may help you overcome your fear of the dentist:
Go to that first visit with someone you trust, such as a close relative who has no fear of dentists, Bynes suggests. Bynes even encourages friends and relatives to sit with the patient during treatment.
Seek distraction while in the dentist's chair. Listen to your own music on headphones -- "a new CD, not one you've heard a lot, so you'll be a little more interested in it," Milgrom suggests. Or find a dentist with a TV or other distractions available in the treatment room.
Try relaxation techniques. Milgrom suggests controlled breathing -- taking a big breath, holding it, and letting it out very slowly, like you are a leaky tire. This will slow your heartbeat and relax your muscles. Another technique is progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in turn.