It is estimated that as many as 75% of US adults experience some degree of dental fear, from mild to severe. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of U.S. adults are considered to experience dental phobia; that is, they are so fearful of receiving dental treatment that they avoid dental care at all costs. Many dentally fearful people will only seek dental care when they have a dental emergency, such as a toothache or dental abscess. People who are very fearful of dental care often experience a “cycle of avoidance,” in which they avoid dental care due to fear until they experience a dental emergency requiring invasive treatment, which can reinforce their fear of dentistry.
Women tend to report more dental fear than men, and younger people tend to report being more dentally fearful than older individuals dentist. People tend to report being more fearful of more invasive procedures, such as oral surgery, than they are of less invasive treatment, such as professional dental cleanings, or prophylaxis.
It has been found that there are two main causes of dental fear in patients; Direct Experiences and Indirect Experiences.
Direct experience is the most common way people develop dental fears. We’ve found that a majority of people report that their dental fear began after a traumatic, difficult, or painful dental experience. These reasons of course are not the only explanations of dental anxiety. Another contributing factor is simply the perceived manner of the dentists as “impersonal”, “uncaring”, “Uninterested” or “cold” whereas dentists who are perceived as warm and caring actually counterbalance the fear caused by painful procedures.
Indirect experience can include vicarious learning, mass media, stimulus generalization, helplessness and perceived lack of control. Through vicarious learning one may develop an anxiety simply by hearing of other peoples painful and traumatic experiences at their dentist’s office. Mass media has negative portrayal of dentistry in television shows and children’s cartoons.
Stimulus generalization is another indirect experience causing a patient to develop a fear as a result of a previous traumatic experience in a non-dental context. A major contributor of stimulus generalization is a patient’s traumatic experience at hospitals or general practice doctors that wear white coats and have antiseptic smells throughout their practices. A way that a lot of dental practitioners have been combating this perception is by wearing clothing that isn’t so “lab coatish”.
Helplessness and perceived lack of control occurs when a person believes that they have no means of influencing a negative event. Research has shown that a perception of lack of control leads to fear whereas a perception of having control lessens fear greatly. For example, a dentist that tells a patient to raise their hand during a procedure to signal pain so that the dentist or hygienist can stop during the procedure will generate a much less fearful and anxious patient thus creating a more pleasant general experience influencing the patient to continue to come back for additional treatment.
A few great techniques that modern day dentists are implementing to reduce fear and anxiety are comfortable “massage” chairs, utilizing the “tell, show, do” technique, music via headphones, allowing their patients to bring in their own i-pods and even televisions in each operatory allowing the patient to choose what they would like to watch during their procedure. Each one of these techniques offers the patient a perception of welcoming and warmness causing the patient to feel more “at home” and relaxed during a potentially stressful procedure.
One of our most productive clients actually offers an in-house masseuse that will relax the patient by offering a short massage prior to any dental treatment. While this technique hasn’t been adopted by very many dental practices it has proven, for this particular doctor, to be a very effective way of reducing patient stress and anxiety. The offer of an in-house masseuse also gives something for the patient to talk about once they leave the dentist’s office. By having a pleasantly memorable experience with a personal masseuse at their dental practitioners office gives a means for positive referrals to friends and family.