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Dental Phobia & Anxiety: Severe vs Mild and What to Do

written by: Rene Wolf • edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • updated: 10/6/2010

For some people, going to the dentist provokes a slight nervousness, but for others it brings on a full panic attack. An extreme fear of the dentist, known as dental phobia, can prevent people from getting the correct dental care needed for healthy teeth and gums.

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    Dental Phobia

    Going to the dentist for many folks might cause a slight nervousness, or mild anxiety, but for some people, going to the dentist may induce a full blown panic attack. There are three different levels of anxiety experienced when going to the dentist, ranging from a slight nervousness (mild anxiety), to moderate anxiety, and extreme anxiety which is known as dental phobia. When someone has dental anxiety they can be slightly nervous about getting dental care or when they have dental phobia it can prevent them from getting the dental care they need for a healthy teeth and/or gums.

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    Mild Anxiety

    Previous bad experiences or just the thought of the possible pain can induce mild anxiety even in those who do not generally fear going to the dentist. The individual with mild anxiety will generally know what it is about the experience that makes them anxious. By talking to the dentist and their staff about your anxiety, they will be able to make attempts at providing you with a calm and soothing environment as well as explain the local anesthesia to you for reducing the pain.

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    Moderate Anxiety

    Someone with moderate anxiety occurring when they go to the dentist experiences a great amount of stress. They cannot sit still while in the dentist chair and may have to be given mild anti-anxiety medication from the dentist or their physician. They are fearful and have most likely undergone a bad experience with a dentist in the past. The individual with moderate anxiety is able to go to the dentist office and receive treatment when they are provided anti anxiety medication, calmness, and a dentist that is patient with the anxiety.

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    Dental Phobia

    People with a overwhelming fear of the dentist and/or dental work are categorized as having dental phobia or severe anxiety. Someone with dental phobia experiences extreme anxiety by simply thinking about the dentist. Symptoms of dental phobia include heart palpitations, the fear of dying, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, and full blown anxiety attacks. These individuals typically cannot undergo any type of dental treatment while they are conscious. If they do go to the dentist, it will usually be under the conditions that they will not be alert during any procedure. They may require procedures to be done at a hospital because receiving dental treatments at a hospital feels like a safer environment than a dental office. Individuals with dental phobia suffer with severe teeth and/or gum problems due to their extreme fear of visiting a dentist.

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    Getting Dental Care With Anxiety

    Getting dental care can be for those with dental anxiety of any degree can be done. For others it may be more difficult.

    For slight to moderate anxiety:

    • Find a dentist that you are comfortable with. Visit the dental office before the day of procedures to become familiar with the office and staff.
    • Alert the dentist and their staff about the anxiety felt.
    • Talk to the dentist about taking breaks if needed and work out a signal that can be used to let them know a break is needed.
    • Listen to music or watch television while procedures are being done.
    • For moderate anxiety, the dentist may be able to prescribe a mild anti-anxiety medication that can be taken a couple of hours before the appointment to help reduce anxiety.
    • If one of the things that provoke the anxiety is the fear of the needle used with the Novocain, request a an inhalation sedation. The dentist will give you nitrous oxide through a mask to help you relax. With nitrous oxide, there is still an understanding of everything being said by the dentist during the procedure, but the anxiety will be reduced.

    Dental Phobia: For those with dental phobia it could be beneficial to receive an intravenous sedation, general anesthesia, or therapy.

    • Intravenous sedation consists of a medicine being injected into a vein prior to the dental treatments. The sedation will allow the person to become completely relaxed during all procedures, they are awake but do not feel any pain or anxiety.
    • General anesthesia is not typically used for dental procedures, however; for those with extreme anxiety or if dental surgery is required, a general anesthetic can be used. This is done at the hospital and requires an overnight stay. The individual will be asleep during the entire dental procedure and there will be no memory of the treatment as it was being done.
    • Hypnotherapy or behavioral psychotherapy could be beneficial for treating dental phobia. Hypnotherapy is used to help people relax and overcome anxiety. Behavioral psychotherapy is used to learn ways of reducing anxiety and requires meeting with a therapist for several sessions, doing homework exercises and attending group session.
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    References

    Dr. David Kurtzman. Dental Phobia, Fear and Anxiety: http://www.drdavidkurtzman.com/dental-phobia.html

    Dental anxiety. http://hcd2.bupa.co.uk/fact_sheets/html/Dental_anxiety.html

    Psych Central. 10 Tips To Help You Overcome Dentist Phobia http://psychcentral.com/library/phobia_dentist.htm

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