What is dental phobia and anxiety?

If you fear going to the dentist, you are not alone. Between 9% and 15% of Americans say they avoid going to the dentist because of anxiety or fear. People with dental anxiety have a sense of uneasiness about the upcoming dental appointment. They may also have exaggerated worries or fears.

Dental phobia is a more serious condition that leaves people panic-stricken and terrified. People with dental phobia have an awareness that the fear is totally irrational but are unable to do much to change it.

What are the signs of dental phobia?

People with a dental phobia do everything possible to avoid going to the dentist, going only when forced to by extreme pain. Other signs of dental phobia include:

  • Trouble sleeping the night before the dental exam
  • Feelings of nervousness that worsen in the dentist’s waiting room
  • Getting to the dentist’s office but being unable to enter
  • Crying or feeling physically ill at the very thought of visiting the dentist
  • Intense uneasiness at the thought of, and actually when, a dentist or hygienist places objects in your mouth, suddenly feeling like it is difficult to breathe

What causes dental phobia and anxiety?

Common reasons people develop dental phobia and anxiety include:

Fear of pain – Fear of pain is a common reason for avoiding the dentist. The fear usually stems from an early dental experience that was unpleasant or painful, or from dental "horror" stories they have heard. Thanks to the many advances in dentistry made over the years, most of today’s dental procedures involve considerably less pain and often none at all.

Fear of injection or that the injection won’t work – Many are terrified of needles, especially when inserted into the mouth. Others fear that the anesthesia hasn’t yet taken effect or isn’t a large enough dose to knock out pain before the procedure begins.

Fear of anesthetic side effects – Potential side effects of anesthesia such as dizziness, feeling faint, or nausea produce fear in some people. Others don’t like the numbness or "fat lip" associated with local anesthetics.

Feelings of helplessness and loss of control – As they sit in a dentist’s chair with mouth wide open, unable to see what’s going on, some people feel helpless and that they are out of control of the situation.

Embarrassment and loss of personal space – Many people are uncomfortable with the dentist or hygienist working so physically close to their face. Others may feel self-conscious about the appearance of their teeth or possible mouth odors.

Should I talk to my dentist about my dental phobia?

Absolutely! In fact, if your dentist doesn’t take your fear seriously, find another dentist. The key to coping with dental anxiety is to discuss your fears with your dentist. Once your dentist knows what your fears are, he or she will be better able to work with you to determine the best ways to make you less anxious and more comfortable.

Here are some strategies to help you cope with dental anxiety and phobia:

  • If lack of control is one of your main stressors, actively participate in a discussion with your dentist about your treatment to ease your tension.
  • Ask your dentist to explain what’s happening at every stage of the procedure to help you mentally prepare for what’s to come.
  • Establish a signal – such as raising your hand – when you want the dentist to stop immediately. Use this signal whenever you are uncomfortable, need to rinse your mouth or simply catch your breath.

Nitrous oxide gas or IV sedation is also used to help control anxiety. Many dentists have anesthesia licenses for this very reason.


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 4/3/2017...11176