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Dental Phobia: 15 Reasons Why People are Scared of the Dentist

Dental Fear and Anxiety - Dentist PhobiaA few weeks ago, a teenage boy came into the dental school because one of his teeth was hurting.  I saw him in our pediatric dental clinic and we determined that two of his teeth couldn't be saved and had to be pulled.

He seemed fine with everything.  I took him over to the oral surgery department to do the extractions and he started breathing heavily and acting very anxious.  I spent a few minutes talking with him about his dental anxiety.  When I tried to give him the anesthetic injection, he covered his mouth and shouted, "I decline treatment.  I have that right!"

I talked with him for a while and tried again.  I found one of our more compassionate oral surgeons and asked her if she wouldn't mind helping.  The young man wouldn't even let her give him the injection.

We scheduled him to get the teeth out under intravenous sedation.  He ended up not needing it because his mother had said that if she didn't have to pay the $200 for sedation, he could buy something with the money that she would have saved.

Before we gave him the injection at the follow-up appointment, he tried to cover his mouth, but his mom was there with us and helped us hold his hands.  What I found shocking was that after the injection, he said he had barely felt the injection and now he has overcome his fear.

Unfortunately, not all dental fears are that easy to overcome.  Some people literally spend their whole lives being terrified of dental care.

If you want to learn more about dental fears and how to conquer them, I recommend the Dental Fears page over at Dental Fear Central.

Below you'll find 15 common reasons why people are scared of the dentist.

15 Reasons Why People Are Scared of the Dentist

1 - The Drill. Even if you're not getting your teeth worked on, chances are that you'll hear the high-pitched whirring of the dental drill.  I've had patients who hate the sound of the drill so much that they wince whenever I turn it on, even if I haven't touched their teeth yet!

2 - A Bad Dental Experience as a Child. A scary experience as a child at the dentist is all it takes for some people to avoid the dentist as an adult.  I would say that a majority of people who have a fear of the dentist had a bad experience at the dentist when they were young.

3 - Getting Your Teeth Scraped During a Cleaning. If I had to pick one reason to dislike the dentist (or dental hygienist), this would be it.  I used to hate it when they would scrape my teeth with the metal instruments.  It would send shocks through my body and give me goosebumps.

4 - The Anesthetic Injection. There are actually a few fears associated with getting injected.  I've divided them into five categories - feel free to add your own in the comments section if I didn't cover your specific fear of the needle:

  1. Fear of the pain from the injection.  It's usually just a little pinch, but some people (like the teenage boy in the introduction) have a fear of getting an injection.
  2. Fear of being injured by the needle.  Many people have a fear that the dentist will slip when giving them an injection and injure their mouth or face.
  3. Fear of getting diseases from the dental office such as AIDs or a cold.  How is your dentist doing when it comes to proper infection control?
  4. Fear of being numb.  Some people hate the feeling (or lack of feeling!) of losing sensation to a part of their lips and gums.  Sometimes when we give injections on the roof of the mouth, it can make it feel like it's harder to breathe, causing a fear of suffocation in some patients.
  5. Fear of the side effects of the anesthesia.  Some people have allergies to the anesthetic or the preservatives used in the anesthetic.  Sometimes your heart races when you get a dental anesthetic injection - read this article to find out why dental anesthetic makes your heart beat faster.

5 - Getting Teeth Extracted. I've taken a lot of teeth out during dental school.  Some people think it's cool, some people view it as a necessary evil, and others are extremely scared of getting a tooth pulled.  Something about having a body part removed that they've always had leaves some people feeling unsettled!

6 - Embarrassment. Many people are scared of the dentist because they are embarrassed of their teeth.  They have a fear of getting laughed at by the dental staff due to the poor condition of their teeth.  Trust me, we've seen worse!

7 - Demonstrating their Fear. Many people are scared that they will cry in front of the dentist due to their fear and end up making a fool of themselves.  This keeps them from seeking needed dental care.

8 - Having a Panic Attack. Similar to #7, many people are afraid that they will panic while at the dentist and have a panic attack.

9 - Your Dentist is a Jerk! Let's face it, there are dentists out there who hate what they do − perhaps they got into the profession for the wrong reasons.  Hopefully these types of dentists are extremely rare.  In any case, if you hate having something done to you, and the person who does it hates doing it, it is a recipe for disaster!

10 - Not Having Any Control. Many people are afraid of the dentist because it puts them at the mercy of another individual.  They don't have any control over the procedure while it's happening.  One innovation to combat this lack of control is known as the dental button, which allows patients to stop the dental drill if they feel uncomfortable.

11 - Gagging or Choking. Many patients avoid the dentist because they have a fear of gagging or choking.  Dentists use many tiny instruments that can fall down the patient's throat if the dentist does not take the proper precautions.  Stories like this one make the news and instill this dental fear in many people.  Many patients also gag when they get dental impressions taken.

12 - Allergies. Dentists use a variety of materials.  Some patients fear that they may be allergic to something in the dental office and don't want to face the consequences of an allergic reaction.

13 - Sounds of the Dental Office. Aside from the drill, there are various sounds that can work up fear in certain patients.  If the person in the next room over is having a procedure done that you hate, chances are it will invoke a certain amount of fear into you.

14 - Smells of the dental office. The dental office has an interesting smell that is made up of a variety of things.  Read my article about the dental office smell to find out more about what exactly causes this interesting odor.  An interesting study found that those people with dental fear hate the smell of clove oil (a common dental material) while those who don't have a fear of the dentist find the smell of clove oil to be "pleasant."  Here's what the study found:

In both groups, menthol was rated as pleasant and methyl methacrylate as very unpleasant, whereas eugenol was judged pleasant by non-fearful subjects but unpleasant by fearful subjects. Concerning autonomic analysis, only eugenol induced significantly different patterns of ANS responses between the two groups, with stronger variations for dentally fearful subjects, mainly observed through the electrodermal channel. These results suggest that eugenol can be responsible for different emotional states, depending on the unpleasantness of the subjects' dental experience. This seems to confirm the role of odors as elicitors of emotional memories and to support the possible influence of eugenol odor on the avoidance behavior of some subjects toward dental care.

15 - Previous Sexual Abuse. There are many aspects associated with dental care that can bring back vivid memories of abuse.  These include being placed in a horizontal position, having someone in power that touches you and causes you to feel pain.  To learn more about this sensitive subject, I recommend reading this interview with Dr. Carmen Santos, an expert in childhood sexual abuse and its relation to dentistry.

Conclusion

There are many reasons that people may be afraid of the dentist.  Chance are that I missed more than a couple reasons.  If you have a fear of the dentist, please let everyone know what causes your fear in the comments section below.  If you have any tips for those with dental fear, go ahead and leave those in the comments section as well.

Thanks for reading!


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27 Comments |  Leave A Comment

  1. I had one of my wisdom teeth removed last Christmas in China( I was born and raised there). The dentist didn't rub any numbing stuffs around that area and just stabbed me with that needle...I hated that. And according to my aunt, they hammer your teeth in China! Thank god I don't live there anymore.

    The only bad experience I had was when I went to get my teeth cleaned(It was a dude too). He went down so deep that I almost cried. Next time I will ask for a chick to clean my teeth, lesson learned. Getting fillings done weren't bad I guess and I actually took pictures of myself with the sunglasses on and the ridiculous thing around my mouth. And I get to watch TV when they work on my teeth! :D

    Good read!

    • Hi Anser - Thanks for sharing your experience. Our oral surgery department is the only area in our school where we don't usually rub the numbing gel before giving the shot. I'm not sure why... Anyways, you can always ask for the gel and your dentist will hopefully get it for you.

      Thanks for your comment, Anser!

  2. I have another reason to put up there! My son has an appointment at the end of August for cleaning/annual exam. I'm terrified to take him. He's 7 and has done pretty at the dentist so far. He had a filling last year and did great. But they told me at that time he had an extra tooth in the middle of the roof of his mouth. They told me that if it stays where it is then it will be okay, but they will keep an eye on it. Well hopefully it is, I'm slightly worried about that. But even more worried because one of his front top adult teeth has come half way down and the baby tooth is pushed back and horizontal! It's only slightly wiggly. It freaks me out so bad, I don't know if I should call and get him in sooner or wait until his appointment in six weeks.
    So my reason is Parents being terrified of their child getting traumatized at the dentist, lol

    • Hi Heidi - I've been looking into this reason for dental fear. It seems like a lot of parents instill a fear for dentists into their children, and then the kids come to us all scared. We try to make things fun, to alleviate the fear, but it can be difficult if the parent has made the child scared of the dentist.

      Have you noticed that at all, or are you the only one that is jittery about this appointment and your son is fine? Thanks for sharing your experience, Heidi!

    • Heidi, don't let your fear or your dentist scare you into doing too many corrective procedures on your little boy.
      His mouth isn't grown up yet and will get bigger to accommodate his teeth. If he needs his wisdom teeth out, let him grow up first.
      My parents were scared into having all my baby teeth extracted at once before the roots had dissolved and later all my eye teeth & wisdom teeth removed because they said my mouth was too small. Now that I'm an adult, the few teeth I have left are falling out because of the trauma of all those extractions.
      Not much had changed since the 50's. Dentists are apparently still using fear to "earn" their living.

      • Hi Doc - It sounds like you had a lot of bad experiences at the dentist. Some dentists are aggressive, others are more conservative. I won't use fear to earn my living - that's not why I got into this profession.

        Thanks for your comment!

  3. Tom,

    You missed one serious reason, why people are scared of dentists. When you're in a School of Dentistry, the future looks bright. Once in private practice, you'll be more concerned about your fiscal goals than your patient wellbeing - that's stiff reality of having no Government option in dental care. You'll be placing fillings and doing other procedures such a way that would make sure the patient will come back to you quite often. Meaning, making sure that the filling wouldn't last long, while at the same time it won't look like malpractice to a naked eye. Especially, if a patient doesn't have any insurance, and there is no control at all about what you do to him, or have not done when expected. This whole thing results in high cost of dental care "lifecycle", and generates the most fear in smarter patients. Other patient categories intuitively realize it as well. You may say - there are ways to protect yourself against bad treatment. For most patients - there aren't: it does require plenty of knowledge and determination that mots ordinary patients lack.

    • Hi Samuel - I did overlook that reason for why people are scared of dentists. I would like to think that a majority of dentists care about their patient's well-being and give them quality care. If someone in any industry cares about making money more than their patients or customers, I think they will ultimately fail. I think that putting patients first and creating a relationship of trust creates a good dentist.

      If there was a government option in dental care, I'm guessing that the dentists wouldn't really care too much about their patients since they get paid either way. They wouldn't have much of an incentive to try to dump $2000 saving a tooth when they could just pull it out and give out a cheaper partial denture. In a government option, there's no incentive to do an excellent job, and no punishment as long as you're "good enough."

      If you find that your dental work isn't lasting long and you're taking good care of your teeth, then I would try to find a new dentist and get a second opinion on your previous dental work. I do agree that some dentists don't care. We recently saw someone in our school who had a root canal done on Medicaid a few months ago. It got re-infected because the dentist didn't do a good job filling it. If you have another dentist look at your previous work, I'm sure you can get some good advice on the quality of care you've received.

      I hope that helps! Thanks for your comment, it made me consider some new issues. Let me know if you have any other questions, Samuel.

    • As soon as you suggested that American's dentist problem was because we don't have enough socialism in America, I stopped reading.

  4. Luckily, there are many ways to alleviate the problems that cause these fears. Modern advancements in technology, clinical technique and understanding of dental fear have helped dentists address many of these issues so hopefully the negative childhood experiences can be a thing of the past as this younger generation grows up.

  5. I don't like going to the dentist because the fact of the matter is that it HURTS. Just getting a cleaning with the pointed tools they have and they dig into my gums.... just thinking about it gives me chills. Plus I have pretty sensitive teeth and when they spray the water in there it also hurts. Oh yeah one more thing is the sound of the sucker thing that sucks your spit out. So all of that pretty much adds up to me only going to the dentist when I have unbearable pain.

    • Hi Justin - Thanks for sharing. There are certainly lots of things that people dislike about the dentist. Before your comment, I wouldn't have even thought that the sound of the sucker (saliva ejector) could be annoying. Thanks for your comment!

      • I miss spitting in the round sink with the swirling water and the little plastic cup in the metal holder that fills with water automatically when the weight changes.
        And those "space-age" green enameled chair/table/workstation/lamp combination. The tools would fit inside the body and come out with the push of a button.
        The little tray where the doctor kept his instruments of torture was made of milk glass with a fluted edge.

  6. thanks alot about this informative article,i've enjoyed reading so much.
    I think i can add another reason of afraid from injection(from my experience) is that the shape and the frame of the syringe and the length of the needle especially when you'll give deep injection like inferior dental block,they elicit fears in some patients.
    thank you

    • I think the worst injection I've ever been given was when I had my front teeth filled -- I had a total of eight cavities in four teeth.

      What caused my fear of the dentist (which I used to deem an "irrational fear") was a childhood experience -- some time before I turned six years old, a dentist did his work on me without any anesthetic; then he raised his voice at me when I wouldn't open my mouth, as if he expected otherwise!

      Anyway, I'm 20 now and I've been to the dentist at least ten times in the last two years -- I'm not the best at taking care of my teeth. Of all these visits, I've only had one bad experience.
      When I'm in the chair, and you dentists decide to play this number game with my teeth, I get rather agitated. Also, when you bring something that looks extremely painful out, I want to know what the hell it is before it goes anywhere near my mouth. Well, this dentist did not enjoy my constant questioning and threatened to stop mid-way through pulling my wisdom tooth. It was crumbling as he grabbed it (I had used too much Orajel and the tooth had decayed beyond belief.) All in all, let's just say I have a new dentist now.

      I suppose you could add that to your list of fears.

  7. Well I'm absolutely petrified of going to the dentist, I'm 16 and I cry every time... but I cant help it. I had loads of teeth pulled out when I was a bit younger and that was probably the problem. And I had to have the only filling I have replaced last year and oh my, the size of needle she used terrified me....can still here the noise of that drill and the smell bleugh! lol

  8. a quick bit of advice... I have the gagging problem when i go to the dentist.. its a simple fix. I just ask for the gas (laughing gas) when using that i dont gag. It works perfectly.

  9. READ THIS:
    injections HURT, just a pinch my ass you know, i had ten injections only for two teeth! and in two areas my dentist forgot to put the numbing jelly stuff there D: then there was an emergency so i waited alone for half an hour dribbling everywhere, i was so embarrased. then they came back and the dentist pulled out my bottum tooth, was fine hurt a little not much, then she went for the top one OUCH. she pulled it and jolted forward and my tooth literally snaped in half, i could hear it!! (i have misophonia which dosnt help) it was horrible, she then got a drill, in my mind i was liek :O LEAVE ME ALONE etc* then she started drilling, it was soo horrible i could see my blood flying everywhere, i was so scared and she got a metal sticky thing and scraped my tooth, i went right through me i wanted to punch her and run. then she and her helper stuck ths tube down my throat to suck the blood away, that helper person made me gag, i was coughing as she was drillign, AND SHE SLIPPED drilled right into my gum!!! at this point i screamed, or let out a high pitch whine. no jelly or injection had been put there. this lasted tw long ours. anyway she gave me stichtes and sent me off :( i had to return the next week for two more taken out, i was SO SCARED. she wanted to take out my stiches and take my teeth, i wouldnt let her touch me, i said take the stichtes, leave my teeth alone, DO NOT TOUCH MY TEETH. so i had to have my teeth taken out the next week, today. today i went inand i was so so so scared, i was breathingrapidly and ripping my tissue apart, what if the same happend? i dont know what came over me, i saw the injection and i closed my mouth. no. and she forced it open and injcted me :( i tried to divert my eyes else where but the needle was HUGE i had again ten injections, she tried to steal my bottum tooth but it hurt so they like put this thing on my gum pressed the button and something shot into my gum, she did this six timess on the bottum only.i was so scared, they bothleft the room and i started crying, i wasnt even in pain! i wasnt hurting at all i was just so scared i started crying, seems stupid now i say it. i held it in when she came back lieing in the chair eyes watering, i had drops of tears falling down into my ears :S honestly i was so scared, i was terrifyed of this lady attacking my mouth. i had gloves in my hand and well lets just say, they are not gloves anymore. i was ripping apart anything in my hands, whic was gloves, a scarf and tissue. not only that but the idiot wasasking me questions through the process as if i could answer >:( when i was numb she was liek *you have to speak to me* one) i was numb and two) i was dizzy and three) i was in pain and wanted her to explode. when she tried to take the top tooth out she asked six or seven times efore i opend my mouth wide enough, i had so much blood and ssaliva :S i started to gag and choke, making rying mroe obvious now -_- i was so scared, the helper held my head so i couldnt move (cas i was coughing) i was thinking *HELLO, STOP SO I CAN BREATH* i started jiggling around, not keeping still. thedentist stopped and the helper rubbed my arm, i rudly pushed her off and they forced me down, and yanked them out D:

    READ THIS BECAUSE I NEED TO SORT IT
    im too scared, im having braces soon, what do i do, im literally petrified, i have never cried for fear before, not really :(

  10. I gagged last time (the dentist ended the procedure early, it was a simple scale and polish, it was the water going down my throat while I'm horizontal that did it for me, still charged full price though!) My dentist is not particularly pleasant and I had four teeth pulled as a child, the laughing gas was as good as useless (I screamed, they had to turn the radio up!) Surprisingly I'm a bit anxious but not phobic. Perhaps another cause of dental anxiety is the codes the dentist uses to speak to the assistant, e.g. '1, 2, 3, no 4.' It's not nice being unable to understand what someone is saying about you although to get round this, if this makes you uncomfortable, just think it's like text talk, saves time, meaning you're home quicker. Regular dentist visits, just check-ups, are a good way of learning to deal with your anxiety, if you can afford them of course, as you get used to the experience. Try to think of something funny, too, e.g. imagine the dentist in a silly costume, saying 'I stink', or after the '4' bursting into '5, 6, 7, 8' by Steps (I don't have an opinion on them, really, but it would be funny if the dentist randomly started singing in the middle of an appointment). Or: 'Bill Bailey dentists' on YouTube? Hope this helps!

  11. As I get older, I realized I am just as afraid as I used to be, if not more. The sounds, the smells, the mystery of "is it gonna hurt once he gets waaay down there?!". The suspense is a big factor for me. Its like watching a horror movie; startling jerks, unexpected loud noises, blood, pain. I truly wish I could just go to the dentist, get knocked out, and have them do anything and everything that needs to be done all at once. Then I'd just have to come back for cleanings. I can handle the afterpains. I once had 6 root canals done on my front teeth (the extreme effort of one kind dentist to save a 16yr old smile from years of decay). That was a piece of cake. However, 8 yrs later I have a loose bridge in the front of my mouth. Dentist said implants are the best option, or a partial plate. Implants are so expensive. I'm still a student, can't afford them. I don't want a partial, and risk the "sunken in" look you get after dentures. So another huge huge huge fear is that, while working on other teeth, the dentist will knock out the loose bridge and not be able to fix it. Then what? Missing 3 teeth in the front? No way. I think once I can afford implants and get that bridge fixed, I'll be a lot more at peace!

  12. I don't like the dentist at all the only part that freaks me out is opened my mouth i haven't been to the dentist in a long time and I'm eighteen i just want a dentist that doesn't acquired teens to open there mouth to wide because i can't do that.

    • Hi Matthew - You can share this with a dentist and let them know how far you are able to comfortably open. The dentist should be able to let you know if they can take care of you given how wide you are able to open. I hope that helps - Good luck!

  13. hi this is going to sound really crazy to be honest but i will tell it as it is i am petrified of the dentist i am 24years of age lol but thing is with me i suffer really bad with panic attacks and also epilepsy and belive it or not my teeth are in a terrible state yes my own silly fault for not taking care of them and at the moment im that down and have so much self hate for myself cause its taking its time for my referal to go through to be sedated to have them sorted i have a big fear over everything to do with the dentist aswel

  14. Hello,

    I have a new one for you... I am not afraid of the needle or the pain I am absolutely terrified of the filling material. I think it is going to make me crazy! I know how irrational this is, I know that it is over the top! I have fillings in my mouth that have been there for over 40 years but I cannot make myself be ok about getting additional work (which I need). I freak out about it for months afterward! So to sum it up; I could do the work if I was EXTREMELY afraid of the fear after! HELP?!?!

  15. Claustrophobia, Small surgery, invasion of your personal space ,gagging from the instruments, tray across hemming you in. I'm sweating already

  16. Dear Tom, thank you for putting up such an informative website and trying to help people to deal with their dental fears.
    I have a severe dental phobia. All of the reasons mentioned above apply to me. However, there is one more: it has to deal with the phenomenon of death in a broader sense, since teeth are the symbol of vitality: any work done to your teeth is forever, it cannot be undone, teeth will never naturally heal like other organ tissues, so the "damage" done to your tooth tissues by the drill is a priori unrecoverable. Even if a filling is used, it's only a tempoary solution and it will eventually fail, and more drilling will be nesessary, and more tooth tissues will be taken out until it's completely gone, and that's the sign that my body is unrecoverably wearing out, which is so stressful to realize. Interestingly enough that I realize of course that the same applies to an intreated cavity, too, but the whole experiense at the dentist's just makes the feeling of "loosing my grip on life" more "condensed" and gee is that stressful! I have been thinking a lot about my dental phobia and came to the conlusion that it's the stress caused by realization that my body is wearing out which is reitirated at the dentist's office is the major reason why I avoid dental treatment: I am unconsciously putting this stress and bad thoughts off by avoiding them in their concentrated, "condensed" form.
    I know it's quite silly, but it is a problem for me and I am not sure how to overcome it.

  17. I could pretty much tolerate any dental work until I got yelled at (everyone heard it!) by the gal taking the x-ray and let's just say it went down hill from there. The dentist did not ask if I preferred gold or porcelain crown and he was EXTREMELY rough--tried to deflect the issue by saying, ""I bet you feel like a truck just drove through your mouth." (Had a cousin go to same dentist and we both swore we'd let our teeth fall out before going back.) The ordeal actually triggered PTSD/reactive depression. Recent dental appt. (not same dentist) has stirred up the old feelings. First of all, I don't need to be told to have my blood pressure checked or reminded to brush my teeth 2x daily--I am almost 60 years old do not appreciate being treated condescendingly. (I have been diligent in oral hygiene and semi-annual checkups.) The biggest anxiety-inducing moment was while the (young) dentist stood behind me and rattled off the condition of each of my teeth while the hygienist wrote it down. After I heard all of this he says, " I don't want to scare you but...". I doubt that there will ever be a comfortable, trusting dentist-patient dynamic so will not return. Until the anxiety/depression/PTSD subside any dental procedure is not possible but hope to later consult local dentist who is highly recommended and very considerate as well as respectfully age-appropriate.

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Tom, Creator of Oral AnswersHi, I'm Tom. I recently graduated from dental school and am now a dentist in Bridgewater, Virginia. I started this blog to help people take better care of their teeth. You can learn more about me or ask me a question.

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