When was the last time you saw your dentist? Studies find that around two out of ten people don’t go to the dentist at all. Dental anxiety keeps over 20% of the population from going to the dentist. Upwards of 80% of American adults report experiencing some level of dental anxiety, and 12% experience extreme fear.
When dental anxiety is extreme, it’s not uncommon to see people delay making appointments, going less frequently, or not going at all. When people choose to let the anxiety keep them from seeing a dentist, oral health takes a toll.
What is Dental Anxiety?
Dental anxiety is the fear of going to the dentist and undergoing treatments or cleanings. For some, the anxiety is mild and can be managed. For others, it can lead to full-blown panic attacks. A panic attack is a physical manifestation of that fear.
A panic attack often builds up and hits in waves. You might first sense something is wrong, but you can’t figure out what it is. Your heart starts to race; your breathing becomes fast and shallow; your chest hurts; and you feel dizzy. You might feel like the world has turned into a tunnel and you can see and hear others, but they can’t see or hear you.
Some people experience tingling in the hands and feet. Others feel a hot flush spread over their body. It’s alarming and it all comes down to the body triggering the adrenaline linked to a fight or flight response for no reason. When it happens, it’s alarming and may have you terrified to leave the house, go to the dentist, or tell anyone.
What Causes Dental Anxiety?
Why does dental anxiety occur? Some people may have had a horrible experience in the past. Suppose you went to the dentist as a teen and the hygienist made a comment about your teeth being ugly and that you’d never find a boyfriend or girlfriend with crooked or discolored teeth. At that impressionable age, that can make it very hard to go back to the dentist.
Others worry about their dentist finding something concerning that requires urgent surgery or other medical treatments. Financial fear can also play a part. If a person is scared that dental treatments will drive them into serious debt, putting off a dental appointment may seem like the only solution.
If someone is scared of needles, seeing a dentist can be challenging. Even for a cleaning, the metal tools that scrape the tartar from the teeth can be alarming. Sounds within the dentist’s office, such as a drill, also cause fear in people.
A person who is scared of germs may find it hard to see a dentist. As a dentist has hands and tools in a person’s mouth, it can be concerning to trust someone who is exposed to so many germs each day.
Sometimes, it can be another person’s experience that leads to fear. Child onset anxiety can be linked to a friend’s, parent’s, or other family member’s negative experience. The child hears them and becomes fearful due to the stories they hear or behavior they experience from a trusted adult or peer. Suppose a parent experienced a dental visit as a child where the dentist drilled through the parent’s tongue. The child will hear that and it can trigger anxiety within the child.
Stories or videos adults and teens read or see in the media also have an impact. If an adult reads about a dentist who makes a mistake during a procedure, they’re likely to experience fear that it could happen to them. That fear can keep them from going.
Do you have generalized anxiety disorder? If you have anxiety in a variety of situations, a trip to the dentist can increase your fear. It may help to discuss what’s going to happen in advance of procedures being completed, but you need a dentist who will take that time to work slowly and make sure you’re okay as the cleaning or dental treatment is completed.
The Risks of Delaying Oral Care
If your teeth aren’t bothering you, why does it matter if you delay oral care? You may not feel or see issues that are slowly developing. You’re not noticing that the enamel on your teeth is weakening and exposing the dentin below. The enamel helps protect the teeth and gums. If a cavity forms, it may start growing and affect the nerves within the tooth. Before you know it, you’re experiencing severe, sudden pain and need a root canal or extraction.
Gum disease is another risk. If gum disease isn’t treated, teeth may start to rot. They may loosen and fall out. Gum disease can also lead to infections that spread to the bloodstream and impact your physical health.
Oral cancer isn’t always evident from a quick look in your mouth. When you have oral cancer, you may have red or white patches inside your mouth. A sore inside the mouth that doesn’t heal is another sign of oral cancer. So are loose teeth, mouth pain, and unexplained bleeding. You may have some bumps inside your lips, cheek, or gums that you associate with having scraped or burned your mouth while eating. If it is cancer, the sooner you’re treated, the better the odds of a full recovery.
If you have a cavity that is allowed to grow and grow, the entire tooth can lead to an infection in the tooth known as an abscess. Abscesses are extremely painful and are severe infections that need urgent treatment. You need to take steps to prevent the infection from spreading to other areas of the body.
Other health issues have been linked to poor oral care. They include diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and dementia. In 2020, information collected by the National Center for Health Statistics was examined to see if there was a connection between the bacteria found in oral infections and gum disease and cases of dementia. The findings suggested that beta-amyloid proteins, commonly found in the blood vessels in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, might be a response to the bacteria linked to gum disease.
The only way to check for signs of tooth decay, oral cancer, and gum disease is through regular cleanings and examinations with a dentist. Don’t let the fear keep you from scheduling an appointment. Instead, look for a dentist that understands dental anxiety.
How Do You Overcome Dental Anxiety?
Overcoming dental anxiety depends on the level you’re experiencing. Start by talking to your doctor. If it’s severe, you may need to work with a specialist in anxiety and a dentist that specializes in dental anxiety. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist and may know local dentists that are excellent at working with dental anxiety. What you shouldn’t do is keep delaying your care until you’re in a lot of pain and risking an infection that can spread to your bloodstream.
Dr. Jody Jones and his team specialize in dental anxiety. Talk to their office about sedation dentistry. You’re given medication that relaxes you and eliminates the stress and anxiety without fully putting you into a state of sleep. You’ll be fully conscious without the fear. Experience a stress-free dental visit by scheduling an appointment with Jody Jones DDS.