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How to Manage Dental Anxiety and Fear of the Dentist

How to Manage Dental Anxiety and Fear of the Dentist

How to Manage Dental Anxiety and Fear of the Dentist
Dr. Jones
May 24, 2023

Out of the blue, your heart starts pounding. You struggle to breathe, and your chest starts to ache. Your hands and feet tingle, and you’re scared that you’re having a heart attack. Those are all signs of a classic anxiety attack, and for some people, it’s symptoms like that that keep them from going to the dentist.

It’s estimated that upwards of 80% of Americans have some level of dental anxiety, about 20% of Americans have moderate dental fear, and about 7% have high levels of dental anxiety. Around 8.4% of the men and women participating in a survey about dental anxiety admit they’ve missed appointments due to fear of the dentist.

Simplifying The Modified Dental Anxiety Scale and Corah’s Dental Anxiety Scale

 Some dentists use a tool known as the Modified Dental Anxiety Scale (MDAS) to assess a patient’s fear of the dentist in common situations. It’s a simple five-question survey that asks patients to assess how they would feel in each of these scenarios.

  1. If you needed dental treatment tomorrow
  2. If you were sitting in a waiting room at the dentist before a treatment
  3. If you were having a tooth drilled
  4. If you were having your teeth scaled and polished
  5. If you were having a local injection of anesthesia in your gum

Answers are based on a 1 to 5 rating from 1 (Not Anxious) to 5 (Extremely Anxious). Points are assigned to each answer, again 1 point for Not Anxious to 5 points for Extremely anxious. Anyone with a score of 19 or higher indicates high dental anxiety and dental phobia.

An older tool is still used in many practices. Corah’s Dental Anxiety Scale was established in the late 1960s and asks the same four questions listed above with the same 1 to 5 rating. In this case, the options would be Relaxed (1), Uneasy (2), Tense (3), Anxious (4), or Anxious to the point of feeling sick or breaking into a sweat (5).

With Corah’s Dental Anxiety Scale, scores of 9 or less are mild anxiety, 9 to 12 is moderate anxiety, 13 to 14 is high anxiety, and 15 or higher is severe dental anxiety or phobia.

See where you rate with both of these questionnaires. If you’re experiencing even moderate anxiety, it’s important to address it with your dentist.

The Problem With Skipping Dental Exams and Cleanings 

Going to the dentist isn’t easy for everyone, and those who skip dental care face many problems. Bad breath is just one of them. A build-up of plaque and tartar will lead to cavities and gum disease. Untreated gum disease and tooth decay will lead to tooth loss and infections that can reach your bloodstream and spread to other areas of the body.

It’s believed that there is a link between poor oral care and chronic conditions like heart disease and even Alzheimer’s disease. It’s believed it also increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and some forms of cancer. While research is ongoing, at some point you have to decide what you can do to get past your fear and visit a dentist.

Tips for Lowering Dental Anxiety

If you experience dental anxiety or phobia, what can you do to get past it? It’s not that you don’t realize that it’s important to see a dentist, you just struggle with the symptoms of anxiety. These tips can make it a little easier.

Bring Headphones

Bring a pair of headphones and a tablet or phone that you can watch while the dentist addresses any problems you have. If you can’t hear the drill, it’s less stressful. You may prefer just to put on some calming music or a podcast and zone out while your teeth are cleaned, and that’s perfectly acceptable.

Advocate for Yourself

While you’re undergoing a cleaning, be sure you advocate for yourself. If something is increasing your anxiety, tell the dentist or hygienist to stop and explain what is causing it. You’d be surprised how often a dentist has to stop. It’s nothing to be embarrassed by. A dentist that specializes in dental anxiety will have suggestions that you might not have thought of yourself.

Plus, it helps your dental care team to understand what you can and cannot tolerate. Your hygienist hasn’t stopped recently to suction out the saliva that’s building up. Ask for more frequent suctioning. Without you speaking up, the hygienist would never know you were starting to become anxious.

Bring a Friend or Partner

You might feel more comfortable if someone you trust sits in the waiting room or even the exam room, if possible. Knowing someone you love and trust is close by can be calming.

Wear a Soothing Scent

Do you find any specific scent to be calming? For some people, lavender is very soothing. Others love the smell of cherry blossoms, lilac, or roses. Put on an essential oil that is soothing to you. A dab on your neck will be noticeable without being overwhelming.

Don’t Arrive Too Early

You may be used to arriving early for appointments, but if you’re in a waiting room for 15 minutes before your appointment, you’re going to have 15 minutes to stress out. Arrive on time and you’ll go right to the exam room where the hygienist and dentist can immediately give you a mild sedative or whatever is needed to help you feel more relaxed.

Ask About the Best Oral Care Practices

Ask your dentist and hygienist for tips on what you could be doing better. The cleaner your teeth and gums are, the less likely you’ll need fillings or other extensive dental treatments. You might learn that you’re brushing too hard and damaging your enamel. Your dentist may recommend a certain toothpaste or fluoride rinse to strengthen your teeth.

Schedule the Next Appointment Before You Leave

Don’t leave without scheduling your next appointment. If you get to go home before you’ve made a follow-up appointment, the odds of you actually calling may not be very high. This is especially true if you hate using the phone or have social anxiety on top of dental anxiety.

Talk to Your Dentist

Talk to your dentist about your dental anxiety. A dentist should understand your fear and work with you at a pace that works for you. If you find your dentist ignores your fear, it’s time to look for a dental practice that specializes in dental phobia.

Dr. Jody Jones is Nashville’s specialist in dental anxiety and dental phobia. If you’re experiencing any level of dental anxiety, don’t let it keep you from getting regular dental exams and cleanings.

Your oral health is important, and our team offers a range of techniques to help you get through a dental exam in a stress-free, comfortable manner. Whether you’ll benefit from a serene dental office while playing music to avoid hearing the noise or need a light sedative to help you relax, Jody Jones DDS does what works for you. Arrange a free consultation to learn more about coming to us for low-stress dental care.