Dreading the Drill? Therapy Can Ease Dental Phobia
July 21, 2000 -- It's an age-old phobia, this fear of dentists. We cringe at the thought of those drills. We make appointments, then break them. We have nightmares about that whirring, whirring, whirring drill ... and the pain of it all. But psychiatrists say that there's hope for us. A new study shows that after a session or two, very dental-phobic patients can reduce their anxiety level, keep their appointments -- and their teeth.
"It's similar to other kinds of phobias, like fear of flying," psychiatrist Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, tells WebMD. "Phobias are very treatable. If you have a phobia, seek treatment, because you're likely to get over it." In fact, a similar treatment can help people with other medically related phobias, such as a fear of surgery, says psychiatrist William Nelson, MD.
In the U.S., Europe, and Asia, 80% of adults are apprehensive about dental treatment, writes the lead author of the "dental phobia" study, Anja Thom, a psychology researcher with the University of Wuppertal in Germany. In the U.S. alone, 20% of adults describe themselves as "highly anxious" and 5% avoid dental treatments altogether. Women tend to be more dental phobic than men. And it often starts early -- about age 12.
The 50 patients in Thom's study all had high anxiety about impending dental work. All had been phobic about dentists for 10 years or more. All had decayed or missing teeth. The vast majority needed to have one tooth pulled (one needed seven pulled) and had procrastinated seeing a dentist for years. Some had never been to a dentist -- ever. All were feeling a significant amount of pain, prompting them to finally get help.
Patients were divided into three groups: one was given Versed, a tranquilizing drug, 30 minutes before their procedure. The other group had psychotherapy sessions just one week before their scheduled appointment. The comparison group got no tranquilizers and no therapy. However, they all had their dental work done under local anesthesia.
The tranquilizer significantly helped reduce anxiety in the group that got it. However, the more long-term benefit went to the group that had therapy. In the "pain diaries" that all patients kept, the group that saw a psychiatrist -- and learned how to deal with their anxiety -- showed significantly less fear two months later, when it was time for follow-up appointments.
It makes sense to Rothbaum, who directs the trauma and anxiety recovery program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "The truth of the matter is, I don't think anyone really likes going to the dentist. So it's not that you completely switch and say, 'Oh I love this.' But you can get over the excessive fear that might keep you from going."