How Dental Phobia Develops and What Offices Do to Help

Let's be honest: How many people really enjoy going to the dentist? Many people grumble about their preventive and restorative dental care appointments – it's a common response among the community. However, there's a point where this dislike can be a psychological condition. Here's why a general aversion can actually lead to uncontrollable nervousness or chronic apprehension.

What Is Dental Phobia?

Dental phobia can be referred to as dental fear, odontophobia, dentophobia, dentist phobia and dental anxiety. Psychologically, it's a general fear of dentistry, sitting in a dental office or receiving dental care. Because a mild dislike of dental care can lead to anxiety, a person can come to avoid dental care altogether. And when the anxiety heightens to a point where it affects an individual's decisions to maintain their own health, he or she may experience dental phobia.

Several factors can trigger heightened anxiety, and an individual can experience one or more of these factors simultaneously. Many of these stressors can be found in a dental office. These include the smells of dental compounds (especially strong-odored medicaments like eugenol and bleach), seeing dental instruments (especially needles and forcepts) and hearing the tools of the dental office (such as the drill). Patients can associate these sensory responses to previous dental experiences, specifically if those experiences were negative and left a strong impression earlier in life.

How Many Are Affected?

Peter Milgrom, DDS, author of Treating Fearful Dental Patients, a professor at the University of Washington and a known researcher of dental anxiety, suggests between 5 and 8 percent of Americans refuse to seek care from a dental professional due to some degree of fear. In addition, according to Creekside Dental, up to 20 percent of patients will go to the dentist only when necessary.

Tips for the Phobic Patient

Those who experience dental phobia may show symptoms of panic and anxiety that can escalate prior to or during a dental appointment. Fortunately premedication of an antianxiety medication such as triazolam, and psychotherapeutic coping techniques can both be helpful in relieving these attacks. Researchers at the University of Gothenberg, Sweden's Sahlgrenska Academy have identified that phobic patients can use this effectively to quell the fear of the dental office. Acta Odontologica Scandinavica published the results of the study, and some techniques include:

  • Practicing positive self-talk and self-efficacy; tell yourself that you can do it.


  • Being optimistic; tell yourself it will be fine and your dental professional is someone you can trust.


  • Distracting your thoughts; use word games or listen to music, linking the experience to something you enjoy.


  • Distancing yourself from the activities of the dental office; use your imagination to distract yourself during the procedure.


How Your Clinician Helps

The latter is something many dental offices facilitate no matter what they're specialty is. If they have a TV, for instance, they'll usually ask what you'd like to watch. Frasher Hendrie, BDS, MFGDP shares additional methods used within Dental Anxiety Network, one of which is opening lines of communication with patients. Simply listening to your concerns face-to-face is fairly common, but many doctors even allow you to tell them your story. Sharing your questions and hesitations berforehand can help the clinician lessen your fear of not knowing what is going on, helping you and your family in the process.

The best dental professionals also plan for on-time treatment when serving a phobic patient. Anxious adults and children who are left waiting in the reception area are notorious for leaving if anxiety heightens and their fight-or-flight response kicks in. If you're looking for a practice that respects these tendencies, consider an office that's more inviting in its appearance. Fewer items that are visually "scary" may maintain a more relaxed demeanor for patients who experience dental anxiety.

By identifying each patient's fears, and working to resolve those fears on an individual basis, clinicians can create an ideal situation for dental treatment to take place. The best thing you can do is stay as healthy as possible. Committing to your regular checkup, and using a toothpaste for complete protection like Colgate® Total, ensures that you're their easiest patient every time.

About the author: Emily Boge, RDH, BS, MPAc, is currently a health sciences public administration Master's degree candidate at Upper Iowa University and has practiced dental hygiene since 2003 in Manchester, Iowa. She is also the owner of Think Big Dental, a consulting and writing firm specializing in the education of corporations and health professionals on the role of a dental hygienist.