Being Respectful of Patients’ Pain in the Dental Practice

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Patients experience a plethora of stressors in their daily lives, and the potential of added pain at the dentist’s office only adds to that. It may be valuable for dental professionals to examine the way they interact with patients’ pain.

The year was 2001. It was 2 days after 9/11. As the world was transformed, the patient found that her jaws had locked up with severe pain. She was diagnosed with temporomandibular joint dysfunction and sent to a specialist. She arrived holding her jaw with an ice pack trying to keep her anxiety down as she was trying desperately to not think about her painful mouth. She asked, “Could this have happened as a result of 9/11?” The dentist responded, “No. This didn’t occur overnight.”

The receptionist was very supportive trying to console her, but it was out of her pay grade. The only thing that could help was seeing the specialist and finding a way to break her pain cycle. She couldn’t eat or drink and could barely talk as it was impossible to open her mouth. So, her mother drove her to the appointment and did all the talking.

That patient was me. I had never had anything cause as much physical pain in my life. I had no idea that I would then go on an odyssey for 10 years that would cost $75,000 and tremendous wear and tear on my psyche. Why am I talking about this dark time in my life? Because we must. I believe that dental professionals sometimes forget about the pain our patients go through. We are human. I imagine the hate mail filling my inbox but hear me out.

Pain is something we all need to respect. Unfortunately, unless you see someone grimacing in pain or crying, you sometimes write off people’s pain. Maybe you feel guilty that you can’t believe it? Perhaps you are afraid we could end up having a problem like this, so you put some emotional distance in your interaction. You don’t want your patients to suffer, but sometimes you feel helpless. And, if you are honest, sometimes you get tired of it. That may sound harsh, but it does happen. Think about it. Your friend is crying. You hold them, hug them, reassure them, and pat them on the back. Could this patting them on the back be an unconscious point of saying “enough”? That is one reason therapy helps. Therapists don’t hug, don’t pat, and don’t cut the client off when someone is in true emotional pain.


Having a chronic pain situation takes a toll on those who love you. They may ask how you are doing, but eventually, they stop. They may tell themselves, “I don’t want to upset you by asking.” Or they may stop calling. Why? Because there are limits. People want to hear that things are getting better and not that the pain continues. This can happen with chronic illnesses and pain. Everyone is frustrated and may feel helpless. Your loved ones and dental professionals want you to be pain-free, but it is not always so easy.

It has been several years since I last wrote about pain, but it is a good reminder for all of us. We need to respect the pain journey that a patient is going through. Most professionals are just that–professional. But not always. I was in my doctor’s office with stomach pains many years ago. I heard the nurse tell the doctor what was going on about me in the hallway. My doctor’s response was, “She ain’t dead yet.” That statement by someone I trusted, did not resonate well with me. It broke the patient/doctor bond as she was flippant about my pain. I am not a hypochondriac, and those scars do not really heal.

Have you ever done something like that? Walked out of a patient room and said something minimizing someone’s pain? What if it were you that minimized someone’s pain? It may have been an oversight and even if you weren’t being malicious, that can still have a devastating impact when overheard by the patient.

Have you seen patients in terrible pain? How did you deal with your feelings regarding their pain? For some of us, it is a nonissue. But for others, we take it home and end up thinking about this patient late at night. My point with this article is just to have you give some thought about the pain your patients are in and if you are underestimating it or not. They may not be grimacing and screaming out, but they could really be suffering.

If you are willing to share your feelings on this topic, please email me at