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When Fear Gets in the Way

Dec. 3, 2010
You can update your tools, give out sugar-free candy and put up as many fluffy cat posters as you want, but sometimes you have to go the extra mile to calm a frightened patient.

by Hannah Daniel

You can update your tools, give out sugar-free candy, and put up as many fluffy cat posters as you want, but sometimes you have to go the extra mile to calm a frightened patient. Fear can turn the most reasonable person into an irrational mess. If that mess keeps you from safely and accurately performing the necessary dental work, something needs to happen.

What is the source?
Sometimes the fear might come from something as simple as the funny smell in the office, which can be cured with a spray of air freshener. Asking a few gentle leading questions might just be the trick to calming their fears:

• Do you remember when you started feeling this way?
• Does something feel/look/smell/taste/sound bad to you?
• Is there something I can do to make it better?

Sometimes you simply cannot reason with a hysterical patient, even to determine the source of his or her anxiety. Dental fear rarely stems from the conclusion of a logical thought process. However, it is always important to make an effort to uncover the cause of the problem, especially if it turns out to be an easy fix.

Make it familiar
Often, fear simply stems from unfamiliarity, especially if the patient has never or rarely visited a dentist in the past. An air of friendliness and helpfulness around the office could help make patients feel more at east. For example:

• Receptionists – Explain how to set up a payment plan, how to schedule the next appointment and what their next steps are.

• Hygienists – Strike up a friendly one-sided conversation (that does not include the last time you accidentally cut into someone’s gum while cleaning their teeth!). Listen to patients when they have something to say, and be extra-gentle if they seem to cringe at certain movements.

• Dentists – Take the time to sit down with patients and explain the procedures with them. An extraction may sound terrifying until you explain the process in general terms and remind them that they won’t feel a thing. Work directly with the patient to work out a treatment plan, and don’t disregard or downplay his or her fears about the process.

Patients' fears may not be completely unfounded. They may have received poor dental work in the past, and they have no way of knowing if you will repeat the unpleasant experience until you prove it to them. Even so, an estimated 15 percent of Americans experience some sort of dental fear or phobia, according to the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. This could range from slight anxiety to crippling phobia.

Do you often deal with extremely frightened patients? What techniques have you implemented to overcome these obstacles?

Hannah Daniel writes for a dental blog backed by, which offers discount dental plans nationwide. She enjoys keeping people up to date on dental news and helping them save money on dental care.