Dentist teaching little girl how to brush teeth during National Children's Dental Health Month

How to Deal With Anxious Dental Patients

Dentophobia: A common fear among Americans 

If the thought of visiting a dentist sends a shiver up your spine, you may have dentophobia. Roughly 36% of adults in the United States experience this disproportionate fear of dental treatment. Of that population, 12% of Americans have a fear of dental procedures that psychologists would consider extreme.  

This fear may lead to intense anxiety or avoidance, which can translate over time to poor oral health. Poor oral health can, in turn, develop into more serious conditions, including decayed teeth, periodontal disease, complications from diabetes, pneumonia, or other respiratory diseases.  

Related: Working With Fearful and Anxious Dental Patients  

What causes anxiety in dental patients?  

The causes of this particular anxiety are as varied as the people who experience it. For some, it may be a result of a previous bad experience. This could be first- or secondhand; if a patient has a close family member with dentophobia, they might experience it as well.   

To others, the idea of laying in a dentist chair while a stranger uses metal tools in their mouth inspires feelings of helplessness and fear.   

Some patients’ dentophobia may be connected to, or even an amalgamation of, other fears, including:  

  • Algophobia, or fear of pain 
  • Being put under anesthetic 
  • Haphephobia, or fear of being touched  
  • Emetophobia, or fear of vomiting  
  • Pseudodysphagia, or fear of choking 
  • Trypanophobia, or fear of needles  
  • Iatrophobia, or fear of doctors in general  
  • Hemophobia, or fear of blood 
  • Fears connected to noises and smells of the dental office 

Dealing with anxious dental patients  

Feelings of intense anxiety related to the dentist can be crippling. Thankfully, there are ways to mitigate it. Here are several tips for dental professionals to help ease the minds of their anxious patients.     

  • Take an empathetic approach. There’s often an element of embarrassment that accompanies dentophobia, especially among adults. They may worry dental professionals won’t take their fears seriously. Leading with empathy and listening to the patient’s fears is an important first step.  
  • Communicate clearly and accurately. Avoid misleading statements like “this won’t hurt a bit” if it will, in fact, hurt a bit. Instead, structure statements positively, e.g. “you may feel a pinch here.” This gives the patient clear expectations and does not minimize their concerns.  
  • Establish a signal system. For many patients, the root of their anxiety in the dental chair stems from their loss of control. Establishing a system of hand signals restores some of that control to the patient, allowing them to signal for a break when they feel they need it.  
  • Tell-show-do. Fear of the unknown can contribute greatly to dental anxiety. Following this method can reduce the unknown and empower the patient with the knowledge of what’s being done. First, verbally describe the procedure. Second, demonstrate the procedure, including auditory and visual cues. Finally, complete the procedure.   
  • Offer distractions. Creating as nonthreatening an environment as possible may help nervous patients relax. Consider offering a blanket, turning on an overhead TV, providing the patient with calming music, or turning on the radio.