Dental anxiety is incredibly common and can arise in childhood or adulthood. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to the severity of dental anxiety. Some people get a little nervous, some people develop debilitating fear, and some stop going to the dentist altogether because of how much dental anxiety impacts them. And, while going to the dentist may not be your favorite thing to do, people that experience anxiety may need special sensitivity and care from their dental practitioners. WebMD points out just how prevalent dental anxiety and phobia is, “Between 9% and 20% of Americans avoid going to the dentist because of anxiety or fear. Indeed, it is a universal phenomenon. Dental phobia is a more serious condition than anxiety. It leaves people panic-stricken and terrified. People with dental phobia have an awareness that the fear is totally irrational, but are unable to do much about it. They exhibit classic avoidance behavior; that is, they will do everything possible to avoid going to the dentist. People with dental phobia usually go to the dentist only when forced to do so by extreme pain.” That percentage is of people with a phobia, the amount of people that suffer from dental anxiety is likely much higher. Whether a patient’s dental fear is mild, can be categorized as anxiety, or is as severe as a phobia, it can make the dental experience unpleasant for everyone involved.
First, it is important to understand that the anxiety can be related to a variety of things such as fear of needles or anesthesia, fear of pain, fear of the sounds produced when dental work is being completed such as grinding or other loud noises, fear from a previous bad experience, etc. The most important thing a dental hygienist and dentist can do to work with a patient that has dental anxiety is ask them what their fears are, what causes them anxiety, and why that might be the case. This will help you form a plan to proceed with dental care while minimizing anxiety. Many patients simply need to be walked through the steps so that they understand what is going to happen. Never try to trick an anxious or fearful patient because that can exacerbate fear and mistrust. Explain that anxiety is very normal and be sure to reassure your anxious patient often and offer praise for completing various tasks and stages of an exam or procedure. Many dental practices have also found that offering soothing devices such as music, a blanket, or a television to watch during the procedure can help alleviate anxiety. Further, discuss creating a signal for your patients that they can use if they need a break or need to stop so that they do not worry that they won’t be able to communicate. Finally, some patients may benefit from the use of anti-anxiety medications or sedation if anxiety and fear becomes extremely problematic. With special accommodations, patience, and understanding, you can improve the dental health and dental office experience for your anxious patient.