Helping Anxious Patients Feel Comfortable, Safe, and Smile-Ready

by Dr. Charles Sutera, FAGD

Dental anxiety is real. And it can have serious health impacts if allowed to interfere with dental care.

Studies estimate that as many as 60% of dental patients have anywhere from mild to severe dental fear, and as many as 20% of Americans actually avoid going to the dentist because of their anxiety.

Though the exact cause of dental anxiety can vary, the most common is believed to stem from a past bad experience at the dentist. Other causes can include hearing or reading about negative encounters, as well as parental modeling.

Dental phobia (odontophobia and dentophobia) is an intense fear of anything that has to do with the dentist. Anxiety can arise whenever a person just thinks about a dental office, the patient room, dentist, and dental procedures.

People who suffer from dental anxiety often have a difficult time sleeping the night before a dental appointment. The phobia may also cause sufferers to feel physically ill, faint, and/or short of breath.

It’s important for dentists to be prepared and willing to discuss feelings of anxiety with patients and to have processes in place to help patients with high dental anxiety.

Just as dental phobia starts from a negative experience, helping patients overcome dental phobia starts by creating a positive experience for them.

Below are some pointers for helping patients work through dental anxiety:

  • CommunicateMake sure your appointment process includes screening for anxiety and encourage staff to schedule a consultation appointment with patients who express a high level of dental anxiety. The consultation should be used to go over what will happen during the patient’s procedure, step-by-step, discuss how to eliminate specific triggers, and assess whether the patient is a good candidate for sedation.
  • Share calming techniquesMost people with anxiety disorders have their own go-to methods for lowering anxiety. Nevertheless, be prepared with information about different techniques that patients might find helpful, and be prepared to offer concessions that may help, like taking breaks, using distractions like music or a movie, a weighted blanket, and/or simply learning as much about the procedure as possible.
  • Offer breaks – Allow for longer appointment times so that your anxious patient can take as many breaks as necessary to ease anxiety. Longer appointments give a patient time for a settling-in phase at the beginning, breaks during the appointment, and a calming period at the end.
  • Relinquish control – Letting the patient feel in control of the appointment can go a long way toward easing anxiety. Make sure the patient knows that they can ask for a break at any time during the appointment and that their request will be honored, no pressure, and no questions asked.
  • Offer medicationNever force through a procedure with a severely anxious patient. Depending on your office’s capabilities, offer oral or IV-administered sedation, or develop a referral relationship with a sedation dentist in your area.

Finally, remind patients not to saddle themselves with unrealistic expectations that they can overcome dental anxiety with one “good” dental experience. Working through anxieties and phobias takes time.

Let them know that the key with dental anxiety is to make a commitment to move forward and give themselves guilt-free permission to find their own path at their own pace. Every person deserves to be healthy, and a big part of good health starts with the mouth.

About the Author

Dr. Charles Sutera FAGD, is a doctor of dental medicine, TMJ specialist, board-certified in moderate dental anesthesiology, and renowned for high profile cosmetic dental reconstructions. He is a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry and is the founder of his dental practice, Aesthetic Smile Reconstruction.

Interested in contributing to Oral Health Group’s blog? Email for more information!

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