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No one really likes a trip to the dentist. Most people, when pushed, would agree they’d rather not have to go at all were it not for the importance of dental healthcare. While most people can weather a trip to the dentist, albeit with varying degrees of anxiety, for some even the idea is terrifying. If you feel terrified at the idea of going to the dentist, you could be suffering from dental phobia.
Dental anxiety ranges from mild uneasiness to panic attacks. Those who are dental phobic are petrified over the mere thought of the dentist and won’t visit a dental practice at all, even if they are suffering from tooth pain.
According to Bupa, 1 in 3 adults in the UK has moderate dental anxiety and as many as 1 in 10 adults have extreme dental anxiety. So, what exactly is dental phobia, what causes it and what can be done to overcome it?
What is dental phobia?
When a person refuses to go to the dentist at all from sheer fear they are said to be suffering from dental phobia (also known as odontophobia). Dental phobia is generally triggered from a previous traumatic experience, but can also be provoked by the sound of a drill or the thought of needles. Even the smell of the dental surgery can send someone into an extreme state of panic.
Are dental anxiety and dental phobia the same thing?
No. Dental phobia is more serious than dental anxiety. Usually a person with dental anxiety can force themselves to go to the dentist when they need to, even though they feel anxious about doing so. They are able to rationalise their fear and somehow get through any dental treatment.
A person who is dental phobic is unable to rationalise their fear of going to the dentist at all, even though they may be aware it is irrational. They feel panic-stricken and terrified. Even when they are in agonising pain, people who are dental phobic generally refuse to go to the dentist at all.
What is the cause of dental phobia?
In most cases dental anxiety or dental phobia is caused by a bad experience, often in childhood, or as a result of other people’s anxiety influencing thoughts and feelings. Other causes of dental phobia are to do with associated fears, such as a fear of pain, needles, blood, choking, or not being in control. A fear of being unable to escape can also underlie dental phobia.
Other traumatic experiences can cause dental phobia, such as abuse, or a previous physical trauma to the head or neck. Some people feel a dentist probing in the mouth is an invasion of personal space. There are often trust issues involved in people who have an extreme phobia of the dentist.
Are you suffering from dental phobia?
If you have had a previous bad experience with the dentist, particularly in childhood, and now have an overwhelming fear preventing you from going to the dentist, you may be suffering from dental phobia.
There are many other reasons a phobia of the dentist can develop, but in general terms if you can’t even get to the dentist because you feel too terrified, then it is likely you are suffering from dental phobia.
What are the symptoms of dental anxiety and dental phobia?
People with dental anxiety or dental phobia can experience a range of symptoms. Every individual with dental phobia may have a different symptom picture. Common signs and symptoms include:
- Falling ill around the time your dental check-up is due
- Freezing and unable to move
- Heart palpitations
- Low blood pressure and possible fainting
- Skipping dental appointments
- Unable to concentrate and find it hard to relax
- Unable to sleep the night before a dentist appointment
- Visible distress, such as crying or shaking
How to manage a dental phobia
Dental phobia is less common than dental anxiety and requires a multi-disciplined approach. The best way to manage a dental phobia is to get the help and support you need to overcome it. If you think you have dental phobia you should talk to your GP and work with your doctor, dentist, and any other health professional, such as a counsellor, to help you manage it.
In extreme cases, dental work can be carried out under general anaesthetic, but this treatment usually entails a referral to a specialist centre at a hospital, not at the actual dentists. First of all, you need to find a sympathetic dentist who is used to treating patients with anxiety and dental phobia.
Some dentists will have a sensitising protocol to get you used to the dental practice and the dentist without having any treatment to begin with. Your dentist may also be able to offer sedation options to help you relax.
You may benefit from taking a friend with you to the dentist. If you have dental phobia or extreme anxiety you might also like to try:
- Talking therapy, such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)
- Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation
- Practising meditation and mindfulness in daily life – Headspace is a useful online tool offering specific short guided meditations designed to help break the cycle of anxiety
For more information on fear of the dentist see advice from the NHS here.
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