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Tame Your Fear of the Dentist

Does the mere idea of visiting a dentist send chills down your spine? If so, you’ve got company. More than 20 million Americans avoid going to the dentist because they are afraid, according to the National Institutes of Health.

We worry for many reasons: fear of possible pain, past bad experiences, the cost of the visit—even the smell of the dentist’s office can raise our anxiety levels.

The best way to overcome anxiety is with knowledge. Discuss your treatment with your dentist so that you will know what to expect. Ask about different options for procedures and for information you can read at home. And be honest and open with your dentist about your fears and concerns.

Most dentists are well aware of their patients’ anxieties. They work to create a soothing environment where patients can feel calm and comfortable, beginning with a welcoming waiting room and caring, attentive staff. Some practices offer television, music, or even virtual reality glasses to distract and entertain you while you’re in the chair. Pillows, blankets, and aromatherapy can also help patients relax.

If you’re worried about pain, take comfort in modern technology and anesthetics. In a survey cited by the Journal of the American Dental Association, 63 percent of adults believed that dental visits involve less pain now than in childhood. If you speak up about your fears, your dentist may give you an advance prescription or use in-office sedation with nitrous oxide to help you relax.

Here are some steps you can take to feel less frightened:

  • Choose your dentist with care. Ask friends and family members whether their dentist puts them at ease. You’ll feel less anxious if your new dentist comes with a glowing recommendation from someone you trust.

  • Eat a high-protein meal before your dental visit, advises the Academy of General Dentistry

  • Unlike sugary foods, protein can have a calming effect on our moods.

  • Avoid caffeine, which can make you feel more nervous.

  • Concentrate on keeping your breathing slow and regular. When we’re nervous, we tend to hold our breath. This decreases the oxygen levels in the blood, which can make us feel more anxious. Before your procedure begins, agree on a hand signal you can use to alert the dentist whenever you are uncomfortable or need a break.

  • If your dentist doesn’t have a TV or radio, bring a portable audio player with headphones, listen to music, and picture a relaxing scene.

The ADA also suggests you pick a time for your visit when you’ll feel less pressure. This might mean in the early morning or on a Saturday.

If you regularly brush, floss, and follow the advice of your dentist, you can reduce the need for potentially uncomfortable dental procedures. And be sure to have regular checkups. If you avoid the dentist now, you may develop oral health problems that will require more complicated treatments—and longer sessions in the dentist’s chair—later on.

“Anxiety.” Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/a/anxiety.aspx Accessed 2013.

“Anesthesia.” American Dental Association. May 2010 www.ada.org/sections/scienceAndResearch/pdfs/patient_06.pdf  Accessed 2013.

“Fear of Dental Care: Are We Making Any Progress?” T.A. Smith and L.J. Heaton. Journal of the American Dental Association. August 2003, vol. 134, pp. 1101–08. Abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12956352  Accessed 2013.

“Dentists Provide Solutions to Make Patients Comfortable During Visits.” Know Your Teeth, Academy of General Dentistry. Updated November 2007. http://www.knowyourteeth.com/newsroom/?news=article&pid=89&iid=816&aid=4129 Accessed 2013.

“Why Am I Anxious in the Dental Office?” Know Your Teeth, Academy of General Dentistry. Updated January 2007. http://www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=W&iid=344&aid=1219  Accessed 2013.

“Can Music Help Overcome Dental Anxiety?” Know Your Teeth, Academy of General Dentistry. Updated February 2007. http://www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=C&iid=288&aid=1120 Accessed 2013.

“Decay.” Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/d/decay.aspx Accessed 2013.

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