Make going to the dentist easy
“I will go with you,” I told her. “If you want to leave, all you have to do is look at me, and I’ll haul you out of there so fast, your head will spin. Okay?”
These were the words I used to lure my niece, who had a terrible toothache, into a terrifying position--a seat in the dentist’s chair.
As far as fears go, the fear of the dentist is a widespread and costly one. It’s estimated that 30-40 million people a year in the United States avoid going to the dentist because of fear. The problem is that routine dental care is preventative. By the time pain is involved, dental care has ceased being preventative and gone into the pricey realm of root canals.
Reasons why people fear the dentist
Past trauma or referred trauma, for example, fearful parents who teach their child to fear the dentist early in life.
Fear of pain, needles and pokey things in your mouth.
Fear of forced intimacy and loss of control. Having another person so close to your face can be unnerving to some people.
Fear of criticism. Since most dental problems can theoretically be avoided, some people believe a dentist will berate them for flawed dental habits. But dentists understand your struggles, and really want to help, not scold you.
So, how can we, as patients, minimize our fear enough to move forward?
- Meet with the dentist. Explain your fear. Believe it or not, this is something dentists encounter every day, sometimes from their own family members, so they understand better than you think. They can also explain the procedures beforehand, which may alleviate some of your nervousness. They may also arrange for you to use a hand signal if you’re feeling undue distress.
Tell your PCP. Sometimes, the underlying anxiety needs to be addressed with medication or therapy.
Get moral support. Sometimes, like my niece, a person just needs a cheer team to get through fear. Since fear is a lonely place, if you take a friend, it might be enough of a boost to get you through it.
Deflect and distract. When I was a young woman, a phlebotomist began to tell me a story as she prepped me for a blood draw. She was quite a character, and had me deeply engrossed in her tale when she finally jabbed me. It taught me I'm easily distracted, and I've used the technique ever since. (Once, during a routine procedure which involved a surgeon putting a knife in my chest while I was awake!) Many people bring their earbuds and listen to music or books on tape during procedures. Just let the dentist know that’s what you’re doing.
Drugs. Sometimes a dentist will prescribe a tranquilizer for the night before the appointment, give the patient a bit of nitrous oxide or an IV sedative before the procedure. This doesn’t put the patient to sleep, it just makes them very calm. In extreme cases, some dentists will even use general anesthesia.
The dentist came out to the waiting room to meet my niece. They talked for a few seconds. As I watched, her shoulders visibly relaxed. She smiled. They talked some more. Then, she laughed. When they turned to go back into the examining room, I stood up.
“Do you want me to come with you?” I asked.
“No,” she said, smiling at her new dentist. “I think I’m going to be okay.”
And she was!