Overcoming Dental Phobias

Have you been putting off visiting the dentist because of fear of pain?

Chances are, visiting a dentist won’t be nearly as painful as you expect. Surveys of patients before and after the most dreaded procedures — such as a root canal or wisdom tooth extraction — have found that they anticipated much more discomfort than they actually experienced.

The root canal in particular gets a “bad rap” because it is typically preceded by painful toothaches. The procedure itself relieves this pain, often in just a single visit. Wisdom tooth extractions get a bad name because of occasional jaw pain experienced several days afterwards, which can be treated with pills.

Still, even if your mind tells you you’ll be just fine, your body may still fear that dentist’s chair. Here are a few tips that may help you overcome your fear of the dentist:

  • Go to that first visit with someone you trust, such as a close relative who has no fear of dentists, Bynes suggests. Bynes even encourages friends and relatives to sit with the patient during treatment.
  • Seek distraction while in the dentist’s chair. Listen to your own music on headphones. Or find a dentist with a TV or other distractions available in the treatment room.
  • Try relaxation techniques. Try controlled breathing — taking a big breath, holding it, and letting it out very slowly, like you are a leaky tire. This will slow your heartbeat and relax your muscles. Another technique is progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in turn.
  • Review with your dentist which sedatives are available or appropriate. Options include local anesthetic, nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), oral sedatives, and intravenous sedation. While oversedation can be dangerous, too many dentists are uncomfortable using any oral sedation. And only some dentists are qualified to perform IV sedation.
  • If you can’t bring yourself to go to any dentist, you might want to try seeing a psychologist first, says Ronald Kleinknecht, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Western Washington University and co-author of Treating Fearful Dental Patients. The most “tried and true approach” to treating dental phobia (and other phobias) is what Kleinknecht calls “direct therapeutic exposure.” It involves introducing the patient to feared items — say, a needle — in a gradual and controlled manner.

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