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Dental Anxiety: Treatments and Coping Methods

Communicating with Your Dentist

Talking with your dentist is the key to beating dental distress. Modern dentistry can be almost painless. Therefore, it's worth taking the time to discuss your fears — and the potential treatment options — with your dentist.

You can feel more in control if you take part in decisions about your treatment. And that can help you to feel less anxious. Your dentist should discuss with you all the procedures you may need. You may be able to have several procedures done at one time or have a series of shorter appointments. Ask your dentist to describe the types of pain control available. Then decide which you feel will work best for you.

During the appointment, ask your dentist to explain what's happening at every stage of the procedure. This may help to lower your anxiety. When you know what the dentist is about to do next, you can prepare yourself. You won't be taken by surprise.

On the other hand, some people may feel less anxious if they don't know what's happening. If this is true for you, explain this to your dentist. He or she should be willing to adapt to your wishes whenever possible.

Another helpful technique is to agree on a hand signal you can use if you want everything to stop right away. This will give you a sense of control. It can help to lessen your anxiety. You don't have to wait until you're having pain to give the signal. You may ask the dentist to stop because you’d like to catch your breath, or just take a break for a few seconds.

You may feel embarrassed to discuss your fears. Remember that you are not alone. Fears are not uncommon. Once your dentist knows what the issues are, he or she will be better able to find workable solutions.

Distraction

One way to reduce stress during a dental appointment is to distract yourself with something more pleasant. Some dentists provide headphones so you can listen to music. Or you can bring your own. An increasing number of dentists use virtual-reality goggles. They allow you to see and hear lifelike images and sounds. This can be a welcome distraction while your dentist is treating you.

Pain Control

Research has shown that fear of pain is the main reason people avoid seeing the dentist. Even those who schedule regular dental appointments cite fear of pain as being a significant issue.

Dentists have a wide variety of medicines and techniques to reduce or eliminate pain during most procedures. These include:

  • Topical anesthetics — Applied with a cotton swab, topical anesthetics are used routinely to numb an area of the mouth or gum before the injection of a local anesthetic. They may be used without an injection for some procedures.
  • Dental lasers — Lasers can be used for many procedures, even without local anesthesia. Uses include cavity preparation and periodontal (gum disease) treatment.
  • Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) — This is one of the most common forms of in-office pain control. The gas may make you feel relaxed or even euphoric. The effects wear off quickly once the gas is turned off.
  • Electronic anesthesia delivery systems — Many people dread the injection of anesthetic that precedes many dental procedures. It's not the injection itself that causes most of the pain, but the pressure of the fluid entering the body. Electronic delivery systems reduce the flow of anesthetic so that there is less discomfort.
  • Intravenous sedation — This technique usually is reserved for relatively healthy patients who are having surgery or other extensive procedures. However, it also can be used if you are simply too anxious to have dental treatment done otherwise. Medicines are injected into a vein in your hand or arm. You will be able to respond to instructions, but will be deeply relaxed. One medicine used also will make you not remember the procedure.
  • General anesthesia — This means you will be "put to sleep" during the whole procedure. Some dentists have the equipment and staff to perform general anesthesia in the office. It's often done in a hospital, however. It is used for patients who have serious medical conditions or for those who cannot cooperate at all in the dental chair. Examples include very young children and people with severe dental phobia or developmental disabilities. Serious medical side effects may rarely occur. For this reason, general anesthesia should be used only when other forms of sedation or pain control aren't enough.

Relaxation Techniques

When you're tense or upset, your body releases "stress chemicals," such as adrenaline. These chemicals cause a variety of physical responses. Your muscles tighten, and you breathe faster. The pain receptors in your brain become more sensitive. These reactions themselves can make you feel more fearful and anxious.

Studies have shown that relaxation techniques can help reduce levels of stress hormones as well as pain and anxiety. People who practice these techniques often discover that their "fear responses" diminish over time.

There are many types of relaxation techniques. Some of the most effective include:

  • Guided imagery — This is a simple mental technique. A health care professional helps you imagine having a pleasant experience or being in a soothing place. The idea is to create as much mental detail as you possibly can. You may become so involved in the mental images that you hardly notice what the dentist is doing.
  • Deep breathing — This technique involves breathing slowly and deeply. It's also called diaphragmatic breathing. Deep breathing floods the body with oxygen and other chemicals that relax the central nervous system and help reduce discomfort.
  • Progressive relaxation — With this technique, you consciously try to relax each muscle in the body. You start with the toes and move all the way up to the head (or vice versa). Progressive relaxation reduces muscular tension, which can help to reduce pain.

Relaxation techniques are easy to learn, but for best results you have to practice. Few dentists incorporate these techniques in their practices. You probably will have to get training from a therapist in order to use them.

Sedation

Sedatives such as diazepam (Valium) slow down brain activity. This is different from analgesics, which block pain. Sedatives help people feel calmer and more relaxed.

Dentists often avoid oral sedatives because they typically take about 30 minutes to work. The side effects, such as drowsiness, may last for hours. However, a dentist or physician may prescribe sedatives as part of an overall treatment plan.

Hypnosis

Forget the Hollywood image of someone losing consciousness while staring at a swinging watch. Hypnosis is simply a technique that creates a profound state of relaxation. The effects of hypnosis are similar to the effects of meditation. You may be able to practice on your own.

Many therapists practice hypnosis, and some dentists are familiar with the technique. Self-hypnosis is effective. However, some people get better results when they work with a skilled practitioner.

Acupuncture and Acupressure

Acupuncture originated in China more than 4,000 years ago. This form of medicine involves inserting needles into certain locations, called acupoints, on the body. Research has shown that acupuncture may trigger the body to release pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.

Western physicians once scoffed a