Regular dental visits are recommended once or twice a year, depending on your oral health needs, but this is easier for some people than others. Anxiety or fear of visiting the dentist can lead people to delay or avoid their appointments altogether, putting their oral health and general health at risk.
Dentists understand that many people find the experience difficult, stressful or even terrifying. They can work with you to help you manage your dental anxiety so you can get the preventive care or treatment you need and avoid pain and suffering in the future.
Who is affected by dental anxiety?
Dental anxiety can affect people of all ages, but it's more common in some demographics. According to a 2010 Australian study, high dental fear affects around 1 in 6 adults and 1 in 10 children. Middle-aged women are most likely to experience dental anxiety at 1 in 3.
Children with dental anxiety are generally able to overcome their fear with the support of a sympathetic paediatric dentist. Dental anxiety can be harder to overcome in later life, but it may still be effectively managed.
Around 1 in 20 people are thought to experience more severe dental phobia, which can significantly affect their health and quality of life. Dental phobia can be harder to overcome and requires a dentist with extensive experience of similar cases.
What causes dental anxiety?
There is no single cause for dental anxiety or phobia. These feelings can develop for many reasons, and there may be more than one factor to address.
Anxiety is sometimes related to negative experiences of dental treatments or oral health problems in a person's past, but it can also have other causes not directly related to dentistry. These may include:
- a fear of needles, blood or other aspects of dental visits
- other physical or emotional trauma
- mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder
- concerns over trust, privacy or loss of control
Your dentist will aim to understand the cause or causes behind your anxiety so they can recommend appropriate steps.
What are the dangers of dental anxiety?
Dental fear is one of the most common phobias and causes of anxiety, but unlike some other fears, simply avoiding it can have a negative impact on your health and wellbeing.
Regular check-ups are important for identifying and treating existing problems before they become more serious, and oral hygiene treatments help to prevent problems such as tooth decay and gum disease. People with dental anxiety are more likely to avoid routine dental visits, and are consequently more likely to have poor oral health.
By avoiding regular check-ups and preventive care, it's more likely that you will need to see a dentist to correct a serious issue in the future. This can require a more complex and invasive procedure and dealing with more pain and suffering in the meantime.
When your only experiences of dentistry are associated with discomfort, this can feed a vicious cycle of dental fear that is hard to break.
How can a dentist help?
If you're nervous about your visit, you shouldn't feel embarrassed or worry about your dentist not understanding your concerns. Dental professionals are trained in how to help anxious patients and most will have experience of helping people get through their appointments successfully.
This is why it's important to tell your dentist or clinic staff about your concerns in advance, so they can make preparations to help your visit go as smoothly as possible.
Find a dentist you trust
While all dentists are aware of dental anxiety and phobia, their experience at dealing with patients can vary. It's important that you feel comfortable talking to them about your concerns and confident in their abilities to help you manage them.
If you're looking for a new dentist, you might want to ask for referrals from friends and family, your GP or other health professionals, or to check a clinic's website to see whether they are QIP accredited and offer special services for anxious patients.
When you've found a dentist and clinic you feel comfortable with, and you're ready to book an appointment online or over the phone, take the opportunity to explain your situation so they can prepare for your visit.
They might explain some of the approaches their staff will take to help you feel more comfortable and may have recommendations for activities you can try yourself ahead of your visit.
These can include:
If the dental clinic setting itself is a source of anxiety, your dentist might recommend visiting ahead of your appointment or attending other family members' appointments so you can get used to the environment.
If you have anxiety about equipment such as needles or drills, you may be invited to examine the instruments, which can sometimes help to calm fears through exposure. This is a psychological technique known as systematic desensitisation.
Show and tell
To reduce uncertainty and make sure you know what to expect, your dentist can explain exactly what will happen at each stage of your appointment, using clear terms and calming language.
They can also demonstrate how different equipment or processes work, only using them when you feel comfortable enough for them to do so.
You and your dentist can arrange to have regular breaks during your treatment, or you may initiate a break if you feel you need to calm down. This could help to reassure you that the situation is in your control.
Since you may not be able to talk clearly during a dental treatment, you and your dentist can agree on a non-verbal signal that will indicate your desire to take a break. This can be as simple as raising a hand or another action of your choosing.
Taking your mind off what your dentist is doing by watching TV or listening to music can be a simple but effective way of reducing anxiety for many people.
Many modern dental surgeries feature screens where patients can choose from a selection of entertainment, or you may prefer to bring your own music and headphones.
Your dentist or other health professional may recommend relaxation exercises for your body and mind that you can try at home in the lead up to your visit.
The effectiveness of these techniques will vary depending on the individual, but they could include:
- paced breathing
- progressive muscle relaxation
If you want to talk to a specialist to discuss dental anxiety or other issues you're facing, your dentist or doctor may be able to give you a referral.
Dental sedation for anxious patients
If other techniques are not successful at reducing dental anxiety, or you need a little more help to relax, your dental clinic may offer sedation options to help you get through your appointment.
Sometimes called sleep dentistry, you may feel drowsy under certain types of sedation, but you will normally be awake and responsive.
Your dentist will explain what's involved and the possible side effects of different sedation options so you can decide what's good for you. These may include:
Oral sedatives may be prescribed by your dentist in pill or liquid form and are normally taken around 1 hour before your scheduled appointment.
As the feeling of drowsiness may last for several hours, you should have someone take you to and from the dental clinic.
Nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
For minor to moderate dental anxiety, dentists may administer nitrous oxide through a face mask. This is safe to breathe and can put patients into a calm, relaxed state, while still being able to follow instructions.
The effects of nitrous oxide shouldn't last after the sedative is stopped. Some patients may feel dizzy, nauseous or have other side effects, but these are usually short-lived.
Intravenous (IV) sedation
IV sedation involves the injection of sedatives directly into the bloodstream and is generally recommended for moderate to severe anxiety or more complex procedures.
IV sedation should be administered by a registered medical practitioner who will monitor the levels closely and make adjustments as needed. You should not drive or operate machinery for up to 24 hours following your appointment.
Other dental treatments to reduce anxiety
Besides sedation, your dentist may provide other services that could help to make your visit more comfortable and reduce anxiety. These may include:
- Numbing gel applied to the gums to numb the feeling of injections
- Digital x-rays that are faster and reduce radiation exposure compared to conventional x-rays
- Air abrasion as a minimally invasive alternative to traditional cleaning and scaling techniques
Caring dentists in the Gold Coast
Our Gold Coast dentists and staff at Robina Town Dental have extensive experience working with nervous and anxious patients of all ages. We can discuss different coping techniques or provide sedation to help you get through your upcoming check-up or treatment with the minimum of worry.
To book your appointment or find out more, call our friendly team today on 07 5575 9100 or contact us. Our dental clinic is conveniently located in Robina Town Shopping Centre and we serve all nearby Gold Coast suburbs including Burleigh Heads, Burleigh Waters, Clear Island Waters, Mermaid Waters, Merrimac, Miami, Mudgeeraba, Varsity Lakes and Worongary.
Armfield JM. The extent and nature of dental fear and phobia in Australia. Aust Dent J. 2010 Dec;55(4):368-77. doi: 10.1111/j.1834-7819.2010.01256.x. PMID: 21174906.
Armfield J., Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health, School of Dentistry, Faculty of Health Sciences, The University of Adelaide. Dental fear and anxiety: Information for Dental Practitioners [Online] 2016 [Accessed December 2022] Available from: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/arcpoh/dperu/special/dfa/
Better Health Channel. Dental anxiety and phobia [Online] 2017 [Accessed December 2022] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/dental-anxiety-and-phobia