We all know people who struggle with going to the dentist. Maybe it’s a close friend or family member. Maybe it’s a patient who you can just see would rather be anywhere else. Well the phenomenon of “dental anxiety” goes beyond such anecdotes: studies have shown that anywhere between 9% and 20% of Americans actively avoid going to the dentist because of anxiety about the appointment.
As practitioners, it’s our duty to make sure that our patients feel as relaxed and comfortable as they can when they’re in our office, waiting room, or operating table. After all, if someone doesn’t have a positive experience at your office, they’re not going to come back in 6 months and their important dental care will fall by the wayside.
Here are a few things you can advise your patients to consider if they’re dealing with fear or dental anxiety.
Strategies to Manage Dental Anxiety
Deep breathing is still one of the best ways to manage any kind of anxiety, which generally causes hyperventilation and panic. If you have a patient who seems uncomfortable during their appointment, take a moment’s pause and advise them to try some basic deep breathing exercises before you continue.
Distractions in the operating room can keep patients’ minds off of any discomfort or fear they’re experiencing. Having a television in the room is becoming more popular, but allowing a friend or family member to be in the room during the checkup is also very helpful, especially for children who experience dental anxiety.
Laughing gas and other forms of medication are of course the most popular ways to calm patients and treat more severe dental anxiety that is actively interfering with an appointment or procedure.
Sometimes, dentists and their patients will work out hand signals beforehand to help cope with anxiety. For example, telling a patient to hold up a closed fist if they want the current procedure to stop. Just knowing they have the power to halt discomfort at any time can help patients cope with dental anxiety, even if they never end up using the hand signal.
Strategies to Manage Dental Phobia
Extreme dental anxiety, usually caused by past trauma during an encounter with a dentist or health care professional, is known as “dental phobia.” Dental phobia is unlikely to be assisted by something as minor as deep breathing or playing music in the room. This is usually when a patient needs to consider general anaesthesia, stronger anti-anxiety medications, and other forms of sedation dentistry.
Understanding The Causes Of Dental Anxiety
Ultimately, if you have a patient who fears going to the dentist, there’s more than likely some reason for it. There’s the obvious stressors: the bright lights, the clinical environment, letting relative strangers poke around in your mouth for an hour. Many dental procedures involve a certain amount of discomfort or even pain, and while your patients may understand logically that you’re doing these things for their own long-term health and happiness, it can be hard to look past the emotional discomfort involved in the short-term. And the portrayal of dentists in popular culture certainly hasn’t helped.
However, some patients – particularly those with full-blown dental phobia – may also be recovering from a traumatic experience relating to dental care, or healthcare, in general. And “trauma” doesn’t have to be something dramatic – even something as seemingly small as being accidentally poked in the gums, resulting in bleeding, can be enough to scare someone out of seeing another dentist for years.
We have to be sympathetic to the fears and anxieties of such patients – indeed, of all patients – if we truly want to help them have a positive experience every time they come into our office.