Don't Fear the Dentist
Experts share tips to help you overcome your fear of the dental chair.
The 'Root' Causes continued...
Still, many dentists create unnecessary anxiety in patients because they assume that all patients have similar pain thresholds and will handle dental procedures in the same way, Milgrom says. "If all dentists were a lot more careful about pain control, took the time to be sure patients were comfortable, and didn't go ahead if they weren't [comfortable], then we would create fewer phobics."
Fearful patients need to be more assertive about their needs, Milgrom says. Patients should say to their dentists, "I want to talk about what can be done to make me more comfortable. I don't want someone to tell me something doesn't hurt me."
Treating Fear of Dentists
Some dentists who specialize in treating fearful patients go out of their way to create a nonthreatening environment. The place where Jack Bynes, DMD, works in Coventry, Conn., is barely recognizable as a dentist's office. It's housed in a renovated historic gristmill, with a treatment room that overlooks a waterfall. The waiting room contains a fireplace and soothing photography; it's free of posters depicting the horrors of gum disease. Bynes himself fancies bow ties rather than scrubs. Many "people have a fight-or-flight reaction" to the sights, sounds, and smells of a dental office, and taking away these cues has a calming effect, Bynes explains. And Bynes should know. He specializes in fearful patients today because he himself had to overcome his own medical phobias as he trained to become a dentist.
Bynes first talks with patients in his office, rather than in the dental chair. "I tell them they can leave anytime they want," he says. "Only one has done it in 40 years. It's so they know they have control."
The best dentists use simple methods to enhance that feeling of control, Milgrom says:
- They gently explain what the patient will soon feel, and for about how long.
- They frequently ask the patient for permission to continue.
- They give the patient the opportunity to stop the procedure at any time the patient feels uncomfortable. ("I give them a cue," Bynes says. "If for any reason they need to stop, raise your left hand.")
- They make time for breaks as requested.
Many dentists lack the patience to treat fearful patients with the care they deserve, Bynes says. Even those who advertise that they "cater to cowards" may not do a good job of it. If you're looking for a new dentist, Bynes suggests being honest about your fears from the first call. Ask to speak to the dentist about your fears before you come in. If the receptionist seems dismissive, or the dentist never returns your call, don't go, he says. "That's not the right office for you."