6 ways to help patients overcome fear of the dentist

Giving your patients a positive, fear-free experience doesn’t have to be a challenge.

You’ve heard of FOMO (fear of missing out), but what about FOTD (fear of the dentist)? It’s possible that nine to 15 percent of Americans avoid dental treatment because of anxiety or fear, according to the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. In fact, dental fear isn’t affected by age or education, and it’s slightly more prevalent in women than men.

While some people don’t relish going to the dentist and apprehension is normal, dental anxiety doesn’t usually keep them from the dentist for decades. Dental phobia, on the other hand, is an intense, unreasonable fear that can keep folks from seeing the dentist and getting the treatment they need. People with severe dental phobia may not only put off routine dental exams but ignore pain, gum disease, and even broken or missing teeth because of FOTD.

Studies show that people are typically afraid of three things at the dentist’s office: loss of control, embarrassment and pain.

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So how can you help patients with both dental anxiety and the more serious dental phobia, which can leave patients terrified or panic stricken? Here are six things your practice can do to help:

1. Ask every patient how he or she is feeling about the dental treatment when he or she in the chair

Dental anxiety and the more severe dental phobia were once shoved under the proverbial dental tray and not spoken much about. Patients kept mum and were silently terrified while dental professionals all but ignored the issue. No longer is this acceptable.

Broach the subject with patients to get a feel for who’s mildly anxious or worse, panicked. Then take appropriate steps to ease their fears. Distractions like headphones for music or television can help. Aromatherapy with lavender scent is being used for anxiety in treatment rooms. Squeezing a stress ball or having a warm weighted blanket over patients can also provide additional relief. For patients who are apprehensive of the procedure, getting them to verbalize what it is about the treatment that’s most upsetting is key.

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“Once the dentist knows the specific trigger, he or she can address it by explaining how the procedure will go, what the patient will feel. Essentially walk them through the procedure so they know what to expect,” says Jorge Vasquez, DMD, dental director at Solstice Benefits.

2. Set up a stop signal

For patients who are extremely anxious, provide them with an SOS signal, such as raising their hand. That means you’ll stop whatever you’re doing. Loss of control is one of the main causes of dental anxiety and this gives the patient back some control. Patients know that if they have discomfort, fear, a question or they need a rest, then raising their hand will provide it.

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3. Get to know your patients

Establishing a relationship with your patients on a human level, as opposed to a doctor-patient relationship, makes the lines of communication more readily open, explains Vasquez. Patients feel that they’re visiting an office where they’ll find friends and not just a doctor. Open up dialogue with every patient about work, hobbies, travel and family, and be sure to make personal connections that you can easily return to by keeping a mental discourse about what you’ve talked about every time you see them. These connections can make a big difference when it comes to patients’ fears.

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4. Address the fear or pain or embarrassment

Since fear of pain isn’t altogether unfounded, dental anxiety and phobias can be wrapped around the perceived pain of dental procedures, especially needles. How can you help patients deal? Address the elephant in the room. Discuss sedation, nitrous oxide and how a topical anesthetic works, along with how a slow injection allows for tissues to numb gradually and can make for a painless injection. The more information patients have about improved techniques and equipment, the better to quell their anxieties. If embarrassment may be responsible for their unease, then offer an empathetic chairside manner. You can also discuss your own personal dental challenges or mention treating other patients successfully for the same issues.

5. Suggest supportive therapy

The American Psychological Association reports that psychologists are now working in dentistry to treat some of patients’ worst dental phobias. While not every dental practice can support a resident psychologist, patients can be encouraged to practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy combined with behavior changes that desensitizes patients to the dental drills, needles and equipment responsible for their fears. Through talk therapy, patients can work on effective coping strategies, such as replacing negative self-talk like “This will hurt” or “This procedure will take forever” with positive language such as, “I’ll be thrilled with the result of my dental work.”

Lisa J. Heaton, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of oral health sciences who collaborates with dentists at a special clinic at the University of Washington's School of Dentistry, teaches patients progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing as part of the therapy. Some patients will need more than one session to help them successfully undergo dental treatment, but psychological techniques have shown to be effective in reducing dental anxiety and phobia over time.

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6. Put your patient first every time

“Put yourself in their shoes or rather, in their mouths,” says Jon Marashi, DDS, a Beverley Hills celebrity cosmetic dentist. “The only reason we are here is because of them. Customer service and a gentle touch all go a long way to building patient relationships and loyalty.”

Once you’re on their side, beating FOTD becomes a team effort in which everyone is onboard working toward one goal: excellent dental care combined with a positive, fear-free experience.