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The 6 list: Ways to manage dental anxiety

June 7, 2022
If you feel anxious, even really anxious, about going to the dentist, you're not alone—but it doesn't have to be that way. There are ways to get through it, both on your own and with the help of your dental team.
Elizabeth S. Leaver, Digital content manager

"The 6 list" is a recurring feature exploring various topics on oral health, curated for both patients and dental professionals to share with their patients. "6 ways to manage dental anxiety" was medically reviewed by David R. Rice, DDS, chief editor of DentistryIQ.

Do you dread going to the dentist? If so, you're far from alone—dental anxiety might be as old as going to the dentist itself, and some estimates of how many people suffer from it run as high as 50%. Extreme dental fear—dentophobia or odontophobia—can cause people to avoid going to the dentist even when they're in pain.

There are ways to work through your dental anxiety that can make the experience, if not exactly pleasurable, endurable.

Be open and upfront

Patient anxiety is something all dental pros are familiar with, and they’d rather know about it right away. They’d also like you know your preferred way of getting through the appointment. Some people want to know exactly what’s happening; it helps them maintain a sense of control. For others, less is more.

"Dental teams' number one goal is to deliver an excellent patient experience," says Rice. "Knowing a patient is anxious before we work with them helps us plan extra TLC time.”

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Get educated and ask questions

Educate yourself about what’s happening—and about importance of oral health in general. Going to the dentist isn’t “just for a cleaning.” In most cases, you’re getting a thorough oral exam that even includes a screening for oral cancer. The more you know about the importance of oral health care, the less it might seem like twice-yearly scraping and being told to swish and spit.

Try a distraction

Many patients wear headphones during their appointments, and it’s an intervention DPs are familiar with and don’t mind. Other chairside comforts include a stress ball or weighted blanket.

Bring a friend or loved one

Some anxious people enlist the support of a friend or loved one to a medical appointment, and dental offices are also increasingly open to this accommodation.

Consider premedicating

If your anxiety won’t respond to other interventions, you can take an antianxiety medication or use nitrous oxide. Make sure you know how you react to a medication beforehand, and be sure to have a ride home.

If needed, change practices

Not every practice is the right fit for every patient. "Some dental practices aren’t interested in working with anxious patients," says Rice. "The premise of a patient sharing that in advance is an opportunity for the patient to understand if they're in the right practice before the relationship goes south."