Older man wearing glasses and a gray button up shirt is being comforted by a female doctor while in a doctors office. 

Understanding and Treating Patients with Dental Anxiety

Aileen Sideris News Update

For many, dentistry has developed a complex stigma over the course of time.  Even though dental practice has evolved to be patient centered and prioritize comfort, decades of negative experiences continue to color perceptions in the present day.  The thought of a root canal alone is enough to trigger significant anxiety for many patients. If you’re one of the 36% of Americans who have fear about seeing the dentist, here are a few things to keep in mind.


Dental Phobia vs. Dental Anxiety


These two terms are often used interchangeably, but have some very important differences. Dental anxiety is the experience of nervousness or fear before and during visits to the dentist.  A patient with dental anxiety may put off making appointments with their dentist. Dental phobia, on the other hand, has a greater impact on a person’s quality of life. A patient with dental phobia may suffer through intense pain and continue to refuse treatment. Dental phobias usually involve feelings of terror or panic at the thought of seeing a dentist, and physical reactions like crying, nausea, or dizziness.

Fortunately, dental anxiety can often be overcome by combining cognitive behavioral techniques and positive experiences with a dentist. Treatment for a true dental phobia requires more intervention and may require a trained therapist or sedation.


The Cycle of Dental Anxiety


In 1984, Ulf Berggren developed a model for dental anxiety that is still widely used today.  The cycle is as follows:

Fear and anxiety → Avoidance of dental care → Deterioration of dentition → Feelings of shame, guilt, and inferiority

The feelings of shame lead back to fear and anxiety, creating a cycle that becomes increasingly difficult to break.

If this cycle sounds familiar to you, one way to help you take back control of your oral health is to focus on one stage of the cycle to break at a time. You can begin by making an appointment to see your dentist. Next, understand that dental professionals see people who haven’t prioritized their dental health every day.  The reasons for not prioritizing dental health vary but there is no need to feel ashamed, embarrassed, or have an excuse at the ready. It happens; you’re human. We’re not here to judge you. We’re to help you on your path back to health.


Strategies for Coping with Dental Anxiety


Our practice offers sedation dentistry to patients who need it, however there are other ways to relax before and during your appointment without medication. The American Dental Association recommends the following methods for easing anxiety:

Talk to Your Dentist

First thing’s first: when you make your appointment, tell the receptionist that you have dental anxiety. After you arrive, tell the dental assistant, hygienist, dentist, and anyone else who’s going to be working with you that you’re nervous. Transparency helps us better serve you. When we know a patient has dental anxiety, we can work together with you to make your experience positive and comfortable. This could mean taking breaks during the exam or procedure if you’re feeling overwhelmed or taking time before we start working to let you know what to expect.

Distract Yourself

Many of our patients like to bring their phone so they can listen to music or podcasts while we work. Depending on the procedure, you may even be able to watch a movie or TV show. If you like to release nervous energy by fidgeting, use a stress ball. Even thinking about your weekend plans or your next vacation can help you keep your mind off the procedure.

Try Relaxation Exercises

Deep breathing is an effective, research-backed coping mechanism for anxiety. Breathing in through your nose and slowly exhaling through your mouth can help relax your body and mind as you wait for your procedure to start and whenever your dentist is taking a break from work. Progressive muscle relaxation can be done right in the exam chair without anyone knowing.


Make an Appointment at North Shore & Brookline Endodontics


At North Shore & Brookline Endodontics, we provide sedation endodontics for any patient who requires it. Before your appointment, one of our sedation endodontists will discuss your concerns and medical history with you. Together, we can decide the right type of sedation for your individual needs. 

If you’ve been putting off endodontic care because of dental anxiety, it’s time to pick up the phone and make an appointment. Our compassionate staff is here to support you before, during, and after your visit. Contact us today to make an appointment at one of our 6 Massachusetts locations.