A phobia is generally defined as an irrational severe fear that leads to avoidance of the feared situation, object or activity. Most people can live with some level of anxiety about going to the dentist. However, for those with dental phobia, the thought of going to the dentist is terrifying. They may be so afraid that they will do anything to avoid a dental appointment.
Exposure to the feared stimulus provokes an immediate anxiety response, which may or may not take the form of a panic attack. The dental phobia causes a lot of stress, and not only affects your oral health but other parts of your life as well. People with a dental phobia will spend a large amount of time fretting about their teeth, dentists or dental situations. Some do the exact opposite and spend a lot of their time trying not to think of teeth, dentists or dental situations.
People with a true dental phobia often put off routine care for years or even decades. To avoid it, they will deal with periodontal disease, pain, infections, or even unsightly and broken teeth. The dental phobia may take an emotional toll as well. Damaged or discolored teeth can make people self conscious and insecure. When speaking, they may smile less or keep their mouths partly closed. Some people can become so embarrassed about how their teeth look that their personal and professional lives begin to suffer.
There is often a serious loss of self-esteem. People with dental phobia also may suffer from poor general health, and possibly lowered life expectancy. This is because poor oral health has been found to be related to some life-threatening conditions, such as heart disease and lung infections. Dental phobia and anxiety are extremely common. Estimates show that 50% of Americans do not visit the dentist regularly. Of those people, an estimated 9-15% are avoiding dental care due to their dental phobia, anxiety of the unknown and phobias that grow with time.
This translates into 30-40 million people per year who do not see the dentist because of dental phobias or fear. Anxiety and Phobia are often interchanged, but they are very different. Phobias are generally much more serious than fears or anxieties. They are deeply rooted within a person. Unlike fears that are learned and can possibly be unlearned, phobias are not as easily dismissed with confronting the situation. It takes time and attention by both patient and doctor to move forward.
Some of the known causes of dental phobia include, previous negative experiences, an uncaring dentist, humiliation, history of abuse, or even the phobia could be learned from a parent or relative when young. Dental phobia and anxiety come in varying degrees. At the extreme end, a person with dental phobia may never see a dentist. Others may force themselves to go, but they may not sleep the night before. It’s not unusual for people to feel sick (or actually get sick) while they are waiting to be seen.
The dental phobia can be treated. Without treatment, the dental phobia is likely to get progressively worse. That is partly because emotional stress can make dental visits more uncomfortable than the situation warrants. People who are unusually tense tend to have a lower threshold of pain. This means they may feel pain at lower levels than other people. They may need extra anesthetic.
They may even develop stress related problems in other parts of the body. For example, muscle stiffness and headaches are not unusual. There isn’t a clear boundary that separates “normal” anxiety from dental phobia. Everyone has concerns and fears and deals with them in different ways. However, the prospect of dental work does not need to fill you with terror. If it does, then you may need some help overcoming the fears.
Some of the signs of dental phobia include:
1) You feel tense or have trouble sleeping the night before a dental visit
2) Increased nervousness while you are in the waiting room.
3) Overcome by bouts of crying when you think of going to the dentist. The sight of dental instruments (or even the white lab coats) increases your anxiety.
4) Feeling physically ill with the thought of a dental visit.
5) When objects are placed in your mouth during a dental appointment you panic or have trouble breathing.
Phobias are not easily treated like fears are, however the same techniques can be helpful. Your dentist can prescribe muscle relaxers that help their patients relax before and during an appointment. If the dental phobia is extremely severe, talk with your dentist about the problem. If you can, seek help from a psychiatrist that too may benefit you, allowing you, your dentist and doctor to work together to find the best course of overcoming the dental phobia.
Overcoming dental phobia is best done with a team approach. meaning you, your loved ones and the dentist and his/her staff must all work together to move past this. Thankfully it can be overcome. Some of my best patients were former dental phobics with severe anxiety. They are now comfortable having dental work done and actually look forward to coming to their dental visits.