Dentophobia (Fear of Dentists)
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What is dentophobia?
People with dentophobia, also called odontophobia, have a fear of dentists. Someone with dentophobia may have extreme anxiety at the thought of going to the dentist or while in the dentist’s office.
What is a phobia?
Phobias are a kind of anxiety disorder. They lead to excessive fear of an event or situation that isn’t actually harmful.
Dentophobia is a type of specific phobia disorder. A specific situation (going to the dentist) leads to a fearful response.
What is the difference between dentophobia (fear of dentists) and severe fear of dental treatment?
Dentophobia is an extreme fear that’s out of proportion to the situation. People with dentophobia avoid seeing the dentist even when they’re in pain. This condition is so severe that it can lead to very poor dental health. These problems may affect a person’s relationships or job prospects, too.
Severe fear of dental treatment involves feelings of distress, but these feelings aren’t as extreme as dentophobia. People with dental anxiety worry a lot about pain or stress at the dentist, but will likely still see their dentist for treatment, unlike those with dentophobia.
How common are dentophobia and dental fear?
About 36% of people in the U.S. have a fear of dental treatment, with 12% having an extreme fear. About 3% of adults in industrialized countries may have dentophobia and avoid going to the dentist at all.
Fear of dentists is more common in females than in males. Some studies suggest that nearly 3% of men and almost 5% of women have dentophobia.
What does a person with dentophobia fear?
Someone with dentophobia may be afraid of:
- Anesthetic: People usually aren’t fearful of getting an anesthetic (numbing drug), but instead, fear the anesthetic not working. Some people fear side effects of the anesthetic, such as temporary numbness of their lips.
- Blood: Some people have a fear of blood (hemophobia). They may feel afraid or panicky about the possibility or actual presence of even minor bleeding that can happen during a dental procedure.
- Choking: People may fear gagging or choking when the dentist numbs their mouth. They may fear not being able to breathe or swallow.
- The dentist: People may associate negative feelings with their dentist. These feelings may be worse if they’ve had a bad experience with a dentist in the past.
- Feeling pain: Dental procedures fairly often involve a small amount of pain. And sometimes, the procedure or recovery does hurt. People who’re highly sensitive to pain may be more fearful of feeling discomfort during their dental treatment or as a result of it.
- Needles: People afraid of needles may fear the injections dentists use during dental procedures.
- Noise: Someone may fear the noise made by drills and dental instruments used by the dentist or dental hygienist.
- Smells: People may become anxious due to how the dentist’s office smells or the specific aromas that arise during dental treatment.
Symptoms and Causes
Who is at risk for dentophobia?
You’re more likely to develop a fear of dentists or a different type of specific phobia disorder if you already have:
- Another phobia.
- Anxiety disorder.
- Panic disorder.
- Substance use disorder.
What other phobias are associated with dentophobia?
Other phobias linked to dentophobia include:
- Algophobia, a fear of pain.
- Emetophobia, a fear of vomiting.
- Haphephobia, a fear of being touched.
- Iatrophobia, a fear of doctors.
- Trypanophobia, a fear of needles.
What are the causes of dentophobia?
Possible causes of dentophobia include:
- Family history: Your risk of having a phobia increases if you have a parent or family member with a phobic disorder or anxiety disorder. You may have more anxiety than other people if you have a gene mutation (gene change).
- Feeling embarrassed: You may feel strange about the dentist or hygienist being so close to your face. You may also feel worried about how your teeth look or how your breath smells.
- Feeling helpless: The experience of lying in the chair and having your mouth open for an extended period can make you feel a loss of control.
- Modeling: Hearing someone talk about their fear of dentists can spark the same phobia in you.
- Past negative experiences: People who have had a negative traumatic experience related to going to the dentist may develop dentophobia. Traumatic experiences may include being afraid of going to the dentist as a child, having dental procedures performed without your consent or having a procedure that caused pain or complications.
- Traumatic history: A history of abuse, such as bullying, child abuse or sexual violence, can lead to dentophobia.
What are dentophobia triggers?
Dentophobia triggers include:
- Being inside a dental office.
- Hearing or seeing dental instruments.
- Lying in a dentist’s chair.
- Seeing a dentist or dental hygienist.
- Thinking about a dental visit.
What are dentophobia symptoms?
Dentophobia symptoms can range from mild to extreme. They include:
- Dizziness and lightheadedness.
- Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis).
- Heart palpitations.
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea).
- Trembling or shaking.
- Upset stomach or indigestion (dyspepsia).
In addition to the above symptoms, dentophobia triggers may cause some people to:
- Cry when thinking about visiting a dentist.
- Have insomnia before a dental appointment.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is dentophobia diagnosed?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes dentophobia as a specific phobic disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Your healthcare provider may diagnose dentophobia if you experience intense anxiety or fear when thinking about or visiting the dentist.
Your dentist or healthcare provider may suggest that you see a mental health professional like a psychologist. This healthcare provider can formally evaluate your symptoms, including how the phobia impacts your daily life.
You may have this specific phobic disorder if your fear of dentists:
- Occurs when you think about visiting or go to visit the dentist.
- Prevents you from seeing a dentist, even when you’re in pain or need urgent treatment.
- Triggers symptoms of anxiety or fear that don’t match the actual danger.
- Lasts at least six months.
How can I find out if my child has dentophobia?
A constant fear of the dentist can be extremely upsetting for your child. If your child is very young, it may be difficult for them to verbalize what’s wrong.
If severe fear of the dentist greatly impacts your child’s life, your child’s healthcare provider or dentist may recommend they visit a mental health professional. This healthcare provider can look at your child’s symptoms, offer a diagnosis and help you form a treatment plan.
Management and Treatment
What are dentophobia treatments?
Exposure therapy is one of the main treatments for a fear of dentists. During exposure therapy, a mental health professional exposes you to situations and images that may trigger your symptoms. This exposure happens in a controlled setting where you can work through your responses. Most people with specific phobias see their symptoms improve after getting this type of psychotherapy (talk therapy).
During exposure therapy, you:
- Learn breathing and muscle relaxation techniques to use before and during an exposure.
- View images or videos of people visiting the dentist.
- Gradually progress to visiting a dentist’s office without getting treatment.
- Have a cleaning or checkup with the hygienist or dentist.
What are other dentophobia solutions?
Other techniques to overcome dentophobia include:
- Acupuncture: A trained acupuncturist gently inserts hair-thin needles into your body at specific points to help relieve anxiety related to dental visits.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Many healthcare providers use CBT along with exposure therapy. CBT helps you change the way you see and respond to situations that trigger symptoms.
- Distraction: Dentists may offer music, movies or TV shows to help distract your mind from your dental treatment.
- Guided imagery: You can use relaxation, visualization and positive suggestion to create a sense of well-being. You think of the sights, sounds and smells of a place that’s pleasing to you, such as a beach or the mountains.
- Hypnotherapy: Healthcare providers use guided relaxation techniques and focused attention to help change your perception of situations. Studies have shown that hypnotherapy has helped people cope with stressful dental treatments.
- Relaxation techniques: Practicing deep breathing and muscle relaxation can help you lower stress and anxiety levels.
- Sedation: Your dentist can provide sedation (medication) to help you relax during treatments. Medications may include nitrous oxide (laughing gas), pills taken orally or IV sedation (through a vein).
What are the complications of dentophobia?
Severe dentophobia often results in poor oral health when people don’t visit the dentist. Poor oral health can lead to:
- Complications from diabetes.
- Decayed teeth.
- Gum (periodontal) disease.
- Heart disease (coronary artery disease).
- Missing teeth.
- Pneumonia and respiratory infections.
How can dentophobia affect my well-being?
Fear of dentists can also have a negative effect on your general well-being. People whose oral health has been impacted by dentophobia may become embarrassed about their teeth and avoid seeing friends or family. Dentophobia can also affect their performance at work or school.
Due to these factors, dentophobia can spur:
- Low self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Sleep disorders.
How can I best learn to cope with dentophobia during a dental visit?
In addition to seeking long-term treatment if needed, you can try certain techniques to cope with dentophobia during a dental visit. You might:
- Schedule a consultation with your dentist before you have a care visit. Your dentist can tell you about next steps, so you feel more comfortable moving forward.
- Tell your dentist that you’re anxious so they can best help you. They may suggest calming medications or other techniques.
- Bring a friend with you to offer support.
- Choose a dentist who listens to you and works with you to help reduce your anxiety. These dentists are known as fear-free dentists.
- Come up with a signal that tells your dentist to stop if you need a break during treatment.
- Visit your dentist at a less busy time of day, such as early in the morning, to limit the impact of noise from other patients’ treatments.
When should I call the doctor?
You should call your healthcare provider if you have:
- Panic attacks.
- Persistent anxiety that interferes with daily life or sleeping.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
- How long will I need therapy?
- Should I try exposure therapy?
- Should I look for signs of complications?
- What’s causing this phobia?
- What’s the most effective treatment for me?
Frequently Asked Questions
Is dentophobia real?
Yes, dentophobia is a real phobia disorder that’s recognized in the DSM. But even phobias not found in the DSM are real if they affect your life. People who have a fear of the dentist can use treatment and coping strategies to overcome their phobia.
How can I find a dentist who understands dentophobia?
To find a dentist who understands dentophobia, first get dentist suggestions from trusted friends and family members. Then, make an initial appointment with the dentist to discuss your fears.
Based on the initial meeting, you’ll need to evaluate if you feel comfortable with the dentist. It may take some trial and error to find a dentist who understands your situation. It’s worth spending the time to find someone who’ll help you feel less anxious during any treatments.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Dentophobia (fear of dentists) can lead to untreated dental problems and poor oral health. This phobia can also affect your self-confidence and relationships. Healthcare providers and your dentist can help you overcome your fear of going to the dentist. Many techniques, including exposure therapy, guided imagery and relaxation techniques, can reduce your anxiety and improve your quality of life.
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