Latimer: Fear of the dentist is common

Does the thought of climbing into a dentist’s chair send shivers up your spine? Do you get a queasy feeling even contemplating a routine cleaning or filling?

Well, you’re not alone. Dental fear is one of the most common fears out there. As many as 75 percent of adults experience some level of fear surrounding a visit to the dentist.

Roughly five per cent of people experience a severe form of dental fear sometimes referred to as dental phobia, dentophobia or dental anxiety. In dental phobia, individuals are so fearful of dental treatment that they avoid it all together and only reluctantly seek the dentist when there is an emergency need.

Unfortunately, avoiding dental care until an invasive emergency treatment is needed often only serves to strengthen the fear.

Dental phobia seems to be most commonly caused by a negative direct experience with dental care, but can also be triggered indirectly when hearing about the experiences of others or through media portrayals or having a negative medical experience. Many people are fearful of the dentist because they feel as though they are not in control.

Whatever the cause, dental phobia can have negative consequences as good oral health is important to our overall health and quality of life.

Luckily, since it is such a common experience, there are some good techniques for helping to alleviate this condition and turn a dental visit into a tolerable if not desirable experience.

Treatment for severe dental fear usually involves a combination of behaviour therapy and medicinal assistance.

Behaviour therapy can be particularly effective and is often focused on a gradual exposure to the feared experience. This is a therapy technique employed in many different kinds of phobias and anxiety. With dental fear, therapy of this sort may often start with imagining feared objects or portions of a dental visit, leading to viewing pictures of dentists working, eventually seeing some dental tools up close and gradually making the journey to the dental chair and finally treatment.

Of course, this kind of gradual treatment can take time, but is often worth it for the long term benefit of lessening anxiety and ability to seek regular dental care as needed. Relaxation techniques, education and building a good relationship with the dentist are also helpful in reducing fear.

Most dental offices are well-equipped and willing to help fearful patients as well. Some clinics even go so far as to cater to a sensitive clientele by offering mild sedation or even general anaesthesia to patients feeling anxious. Nitrous oxide (or laughing gas) is one of the milder forms of sedation often used by dentists to put their patients at ease. It is inhaled through a mask during a feared procedure and produces feelings of relaxation and dissociation in the patient. Oral sedatives such as benzodiazepine are also used by dentists to help in some situations.

If you experience dental phobia and are overdue for a cleaning or dental procedure, I strongly advise you to discuss this with your doctor or dentist and come up with a plan on how to proceed.

Your dental health is important and there is no need to continue living in fear. Help is available.

Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist.




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