Knowing what we know about the importance of a healthy mouth to overall health, we find it curious when a client misses an appointment that can help them achieve and sustain both. While emergencies do happen and schedules can change, habitual no-shows are not only concerning; they point to the proverbial elephant in the room: dental fear.
The five dollar word for fear of the dentist and receiving dental care is odontophobia. While some anxiety around dental appointments is normal, dental fear too often translates into dental avoidance. Sadly, the avoiders are more apt to experience missing teeth and other negative outcomes than those who regularly make their appointments – a clear case of fear determining an outcome.
There are plenty of triggers for dental fear, including
- Family attitudes and behavior toward dental care.
- Personal experiences that were painful or seen as negative.
- Feeling helpless or not in control in a dental environment.
- Feeling embarrassed or self-conscious.
- Feeling judged or shamed by dental personnel.
According to a recent study in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, there’s a psychological cycle patients go through in the face of dental care. Simply, past experiences influence your anticipation of future dental visits, which in turn affects your intention to keep appointments. Bad experiences mean more avoidance.
The trick, then, is to create a new positive experience to build on. So maybe it’s time to embrace your dental fear and let it guide a strategic plan:
- If you don’t have a dentist, schedule consultations with potential dentists. Talking with the dentist first, before any treatment, lets you discuss your fears, gauge the doctor’s response, and tour the office to see if it feels safe and comfortable to you.
- If you already have a dentist, talk with them about your fears. Are you afraid of having anesthetic placed? Dread not being in control? Fearful of perceived pain? Sharing the concerns that contribute to anxiety lets your dentist support you, address your fears, and discuss how your concerns can be managed.
- Go slow. Start with an exam, cleaning, and x-rays. If further treatment is recommended, move forward at a pace that fits you. You can ask to start with the least dentally involved tooth first. You can ask that they work on only one tooth at a time. Shorter, less involved appointments not only build confidence, they build positive experiences.
- Look for techniques that can help. You may choose to practice breathing techniques, listen to music, or search out therapy or hypnotherapy to help you relax. Other options in our office include oral conscious sedation, nitrous oxide, herbs, or drug-free energy therapy.
- Focus on learning. Awareness switches your focus from fear to education. When presented with treatment options, ask questions. Understanding what’s going on in your mouth, what your options for treatment are, empowers you to be your own best advocate.
Lastly, know this: Dental fear does not have to determine your fate. It can be addressed, managed, and overcome. The key lies in the first step – reaching out and trusting that you can find the support you need.