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Facing your fear: how to manage dental anxiety

Do you feel nervous about visiting the dentist? You’re not alone. According to one study, as many as 1 in 6 adults and 1 in 10 children in Australia have high dental fear.

Serious dental anxiety often causes people to delay their scheduled dental visits or even avoid their dentist altogether, which can put their oral health at risk.

Regular check-ups are important for giving your dentist the chance to detect signs of oral health problems early, when they may be easier to treat – so avoiding the dentist can increase the risk of a problem developing.

If an oral health problem is left undiagnosed and untreated for a long time, it may require a more intensive treatment when you eventually see a dentist. If you only visit the dentist when something is already wrong with your teeth, this can reinforce dental anxiety in a vicious cycle.

If you’re eager to conquer your fears and get your oral health back on track, here are some of the recommended strategies for coping with fear of the dentist and dental treatments.

Talk to your dentist

Dentists understand and empathise with nervous patients, and they know how to spot the signs of dental anxiety. Don’t be embarrassed to talk openly with your dentist about your specific or general fears so they can tailor your visit to your needs as much as possible

One recommended approach in dental anxiety management is ‘tell-show-do,’ which can help to create certainty and trust between dentists and patients. Your dentist will make sure you know what to expect during your visit by explaining all the steps involved in your check-up or treatment and introducing you to the tools and equipment that will be used, so you won’t have to worry about any nasty surprises.

Your dentist may also discuss other coping strategies, such as rest breaks and agreed signals that you want your dentist to pause or stop a procedure if you need some time to get comfortable.

Use distractions

Many dental surgeries today have TV screens and entertainment options patients can choose from, which may include TV shows, movies, music and even video games. There is evidence that focusing on visual and audio stimuli can help people with mild to moderate dental anxiety feel more relaxed.

You can also ask your dentist if you can listen to your own music using headphones, if this helps to block out the sound of drills and other noises that make you uncomfortable.

Practise relaxation techniques

Many people who have fear of the dentist find relaxation exercises helpful for reducing their heart rate and muscle tension.

Paced breathing exercises may be taught at a dental clinic or practised at home before your visit. Progressive muscle relaxation needs more time to be effective and may be recommended once a day for 1 to 2 weeks.

Dental sedation

If other relaxation approaches are not successful, or you want more assistance, you can ask your dentist whether they offer sedation for dental anxiety.

Depending on the type of sedation you choose, there may be side-effects such as drowsiness that will affect your recovery time. You dentist will explain these risks so you can make an informed decision about your health.

The three common types of conscious sedation are:

  • Inhalation sedation (nitrous oxide or ‘happy gas’)

  • Oral sedation

  • Intravenous (IV) sedation

Conscious sedation may only be administered by a dentist endorsed by the Dental Board of Australia. If you have more severe dental phobia, general anesthesia may be an option, but this involves greater risks.

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