Coping with dental anxiety

Germany, Young woman getting her teeth examined by dentist

Regular dental check-ups and treatment are essential if you are to keep your teeth in good shape, and while it's rarely something to look forward to, for some people a visit to the dentist becomes a major problem.

Dental anxiety is a fairly common issue and can affect anybody of any age, but there are ways and means of overcoming your nervousness that will mean you don't go without treatment.

About dental anxiety
Worries about visiting a dentist range in severity from slight nervousness to a severe phobia, an illogical fear which keeps you away from the clinic or surgery, and there can be different reasons for the anxiety. For some, it stems from a bad experience, for others it is a fear of the treatment, and in some cases the close contact of being treated is the problem.

Opening up
Many dentists are used to patients with anxiety and you will almost certainly find that they are supportive about your problem, so it is important to open up and let them know that you have an issue. Try booking an appointment to talk to your dentist and discuss your worries, possible solutions and the way forward.

Take things at your own pace
It may be that taking things at your own pace helps you to relax. You may be able to book an appointment even just to sit in the chair or have a simple examination. Over time, this should gradually become less frightening, and when you feel ready, you can move on to the next stage. At each stage, talk to your dentist about what or how much treatment you feel comfortable with, and discuss a hand signal that lets him or her know when to stop should your anxiety begin to set in, and make them aware of any worries about specific problems or treatments so that they can talk you through what will happen and reassure you.

Should taking things slowly fail to help you overcome your fears, it may be that some form of sedation is in order, and most dentists are equipped to deal with this. Sedation is available in three forms - oral, inhalation and intravenous.

For oral sedation your dentist will prescribe you a tablet such as diazepam, which is designed to reduce anxiety and help you relax. You may need to take it an hour or two before your appointment or even the night before, but it is essential that you follow your dentist's directions.

The inhalation method uses a mixture of nitrous oxide and oxygen, which is administered at the surgery by way of a face mask. You will be conscious and understand everything your dentist says throughout the treatment, but your anxiety will be reduced. You may, however, need to stay in the clinic for up to 30 minutes until the effects have fully worn off.

Similarly, intravenous sedation will be administered by your dentist via an injection into a vein. Again you will be relaxed but able to understand your dentist throughout, though you may not remember much about the treatment afterwards.

It is important to remember though that if you receive any of the above, you should bring a friend or family member with you as co-ordination and reasoning skills will be affected, and you should not drive, drink alcohol or operate machinery for at least 24 hours after your appointment.

Relaxation and psychological techniques
Where sedation is not an option - either because you don't want it or you cannot have it for health reasons - there are a number of techniques that may help you to get through your appointment.

Simple distraction techniques, such as listening to music or concentrating on relaxing each part of your body in turn, may be enough to take your mind off your concerns. But if the anxiety is more serious, techniques such as hypnotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy may help you to learn to relax.

In cases where the fear becomes so severe that you are unable even to approach a dentist, it is worth visiting your GP as they may be able to recommend treatment for phobias. It is also worth knowing that some dentists specialise in treating patients with severe anxiety or phobias, so visit the British Dental Association website and use the 'Find a dentist' directory. Once you have found surgeries in your area, some will list any special services offered, including dealing with phobias, or offering sedation or hypnosis on site. It is also possible to search for patient group websites, where you may be able to find recommendations from others suffering with the same problem.

It is even possible to have dental treatment under general anaesthetic. You will, of course, need to go into hospital, and have a friend or relative with you for the first 24 hours following treatment.

So however bad your anxiety or fear of the dentist, don't be embarrassed. It is surprisingly common and opening up to your dentist or GP will allow you to find the right solution and keep those pearly whites in tip-top condition.

Have you managed to overcome your fear of visiting the dentist? What advice would you give to others suffering from anxiety? Leave your comments below...
How to Cope with a Fear of Dentists