A 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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!