According to Peter Milgrom, DDS, director of the Dental Fears Research Clinic at the University of Washington in Seattle, about 20% of Americans experience fear of dentistry to the extent that they avoid dental visits altogether. Of this group, between 5% and 8% are considered to have a severe dental phobia. The difference is this: a fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat that causes mild to moderate anxiety. A phobia is a condition in which the fear is so strong it interferes with a person’s quality of life or their ability to function.
For the purposes of this article, however, the word “phobia” is used to denote whatever level of anxiety prevents a person from receiving regular dental care.
Most people who have a fear of dentistry have had a frightening or painful dental experience in the past, and this is especially common among persons over forty who received dental treatment when the technologies used were not as advanced as those in use today.
So what are the options for treatment of dental phobia?
The possibilities vary depending on the extent of the phobia. Norman Corah's Dental Questionnaire is an assessment tool used to measure dental fear. The highest possible score on the questionnaire is 20; a score of 15 or higher indicates the type of severe anxiety that is termed dental phobia, while a score of 13-14 denotes a very high level of anxiety.
A score higher than 9 on the 20 point assessment is said to signify moderate anxiety; a level which can be treated by managing specific stressors. For example, some people are afraid of the sound and/or vibration of the drill, while others are intensely troubled by the sound of scraping during teeth cleaning. Others’ anxiety is triggered by the antiseptic smells in the dentist’s office.
These types of stressors can be treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a technique in which negative patterns of thought are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns. Learning and practicing relaxation techniques can also be effective. Sometimes a dentist will prescribe anti-anxiety medications for you to take just prior to your appointment (in this case you will not be able to drive yourself to the appointment).
For more severe anxiety, or for people who lack the time and/or money to pursue a therapeutic intervention, sedation dentistry is the treatment of choice. The process used for sedation dentistry is the same one used for a colonoscopy, and is also known as conscious sedation. In this procedure medications are administered by a medical anesthesiologist and leave you semi-conscious: you will be able to answer questions and respond to conversation, but you will be very relaxed and time will seem to go by very fast. Many people say it felt like they were in the chair for just five minutes and they were done!
Sedation dentistry is an affordable, safe and effective procedure which can be your path to healthy teeth and gums, along with a beautiful smile. If you’ve been putting off getting your teeth fixed and your mouth healthy, give us a call!