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Dear Patient: How to deal with your fear of the dentist

Oct. 29, 2021
All dental pros have had their share of anxious patients. Is it possible to get them to a place of not only less anxiety, but also of liking going to the dentist? Amanda Hill, BSDH, RDH, shares ways to help those with dental dread.

For some people, the dentist can be a scary place. There’s even a name for it: odontophobia. Many patients walk into my operatory and declare how much they hate the dentist. Thankfully, I have a tough skin and don’t take it personally. Actually, I take it as more of a challenge: to redeem dentistry in the eyes and feelings of the patient.

As I write this, I’m sitting on an airplane next to a self-proclaimed dental phobic. She, like many of those with a fear of the dentist, had a bad experience as a child and that has carried into adulthood. She’s wearing a mask so I can’t see her teeth, but she tells me her front teeth are broken off at the gumline and she has many broken teeth in the back.

If you, too, have a fear of going to the dentist, you need to find some ways to dig in and manage it. Avoiding the dentist can actually compromise your overall health in ways you may not be aware of because your oral health is connected to your whole body health. From Alzheimer's disease to cancer, poor oral health can put you at risk for other diseases.


Take the time to understand where your fears are coming from. Did you, like my seatmate, have a bad experience? Or have you heard scary stories that planted the fear? Perhaps you’re embarrassed at the condition of your teeth or how long it’s been since your last visit, and you fear judgment. Being aware of your triggers allows you not only communicate your fears but also to start finding ways to manage them.

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Once you’ve determined where the fear lies, communicate that to the dental team. If you’re looking for a dental home, interview some offices on the phone or in person. Let them know you're fearful and see if they’re compassionate and willing to help you. Some offices are more compassionate than others. For instance, if we know you have a fear of needles we can keep them out of sight. Knowing a patient has a fear gives us the opportunity to set aside extra time for their appointment so we can take time to explain things and reassure them as we go.

My plane friend remembers “the hook” poking a tooth and causing her pain. When she communicated that to her new office, they adjusted their behaviors to avoid triggering that memory. They’re also spacing her treatment out to work on a few teeth at a time, giving her the chance to build up her confidence.

Use distractions

If it’s the sounds of the office that trigger your fear response, consider bringing in earbuds and music, meditation sounds, or a book on tape to distract you. Let your dental team know that you’ll be tuning out and to tap you on the shoulder if they need your attention—that way you can really get into the zone without worrying that you’re missing something.

Regain some control

For many patients, it’s the lack of control that triggers anxiety. Ask your dental team to explain things as they go and give you choices wherever possible. Even choosing your own fluoride flavor will give you some control over your appointment.

One thing many of my patients don’t like is lying back. Instead of riding the chair as it’s moving back, ask the clinician to position the chair to where they need you and then lie back on your own. Then you're in control, and you don’t feel like you're going to fall on your head.

Set up a stop signal. I have my patients raise their left hand if they’re uncomfortable or need me to stop. That way they know they’re in control of the pace of the appointment, and I don’t have to worry the entire time that I’m causing them discomfort.


If all else fails, you can take a prescription medication or use nitrous oxide to help alleviate the anxiety that comes with dental work. Make sure you know how you react to a medication. You might need someone else to drive you to and from the appointment.

Fears of the dentist are real. But much like my new airplane friend, talking out your fears can help you figure out how to deal with them. Take the time to communicate with your dental office about your concerns so you can come up with tactics to set you up for successful visits. I want to assure you that we in the dental industry want you to be healthy—and we want you to like coming to see us. So let us know what we can do to help you get there!

AMANDA HILL, BSDH, RDH, a practicing dental hygienist, industry educator, and key opinion leader, is passionate about the dental industry. She is a speaker, award-winning author, and host of Your Dental Top 5 podcast. A member of the advisory board for RDH magazine and OSAP’s Infection Control In Practice Editorial Review Board, Amanda strives to make topics in dentistry accurate, accessible, and fun! She can be reached at amandahillrdh.com and [email protected].