Why are we afraid of dentists?

Dentophobia is a very common fear. But why is it so common? Obviously, there is the pain factor. But surely that cannot be the sole reason. In fact, when you talk to people who are dental phobic – their irrational fears are thoroughly diverse: they cover everything from a fear of choking to a fear of waking up during anaesthesia!

For many people, it is enough to know that their phobia is irrational and they do not really wish to dig any deeper into their issues behind it. But dentophobia is never really that kind to people. If you can’t face your fear, your teeth will deteriorate. Then what will happen? Well, you will have to go to the dentist, of course!

So it seems as though it is a no-win situation for dental phobics. Visit their dentist and face their fear. Or avoid their fear and avoid sugary foods for the rest of their lives – in the hope they can avoid toothache!
It seems as though it is a subject worthy of some further investigation.

Where does the fear begin?

For many people, fear of the dentist begins with a painful childhood experience, often going back many years. It isn’t surprising when you think about it. As a child, we often need fillings or extractions. But the dentist is far more likely to explain to your parents what he is about to do, rather than give you the gory detail. For the unfortunate child, all you know is that it is probably going to hurt.

So already, the dentist is associated with fear, apprehension and a lack of understanding. And that’s just the start. Let’s imagine now that this child needs a numbing injection prior to getting a tooth extracted. However, this is twenty or so years ago, before a new needle was used for each injection. So the needle is a little blunt, the pain a little worse than it would otherwise have been. Of course, your parents can’t feel it – so they just tell you it won’t be sore for long.

Finally, there is one more thing you didn’t realise about that trip to the dentist as a child. People respond to numbing injections in different ways. It can depend on what you’ve had to eat, how anxious you are, how skilled your dentist is at injections. The anaesthetic always works – but sometimes, it can ease the pain a touch more if your dentist just applies a little more. These days, it’s just called ‘topping up’.

Back when you were a child in the dentist chair though, you’d never heard of topping up. So when that tooth extraction hurt, you assumed it was because that’s just what dentists do.

What happens now you’re older?

This kind of situation is all too common: and it is easy to forget just how vivid a child’s imagination and our memories of childhood can be. In a child’s mind, a dentist can easily become an anonymous, authoritarian figure who is there to catch you out. Have you been eating too many sweets? Have you not been brushing your teeth properly? Did you remember to floss? Another filling? It is easy for those sorts of experiences to invade our adult perception of how dentists are.

So what has changed?

Many people who suffer from dental phobias simply choose not to go to the dentist. It is the only realistic choice they have. However, by not going to the dentist, they lose sight of just how much dental practices have changed and developed since their childhood. There are many ways now in which dental surgeries are far more customer-oriented. Even for children, the patient experience is much more comfortable, much more appealing and much easier.

Let’s just take one example: the dreaded drill. If you haven’t been to a dentist for twenty years or so, you will be absolutely amazed at how quiet the dental drill now is. For many people, it was the noise that really set the imagination running wild– so a quieter drill really does make a huge difference.

It’s the same with needles. It is very, very rare nowadays to get injected with a blunt needle, as all needles are used brand new from the pack. Dentists are usually more careful too, because they understand more about how their patients feel.

In fact, that may well be the biggest change you will notice in a dental surgery – just how warm, welcoming and friendly they feel. The fact is that dentists do not want to lose customers. So far more now than in the past, they are keen to provide the very best patient experience that they can.

This includes children too. After all, imagine what it would be like to find a dentist you liked during childhood – talk about a customer for life!

Are women more afraid than men?

Statistics show that more women suffer from phobias than men. Similarly, a piece of research produced by the University of Toronto showed that more women than men were afraid of the dentist.

Of course, it is also important to remember that research can be misleading. What’s most likely in this case (and the University of Toronto researchers agreed) is that women are far more likely to admit they are afraid of something. Men, on the other hand, choose to either try and ignore their fears or to avoid them altogether.

Admitting that you have a phobia is probably the best starting point for overcoming it. If nothing else, you can let your dentist know that you’re a nervous patient and they will take that into account. However, if you don’t admit your phobia even to yourself, there are not many ways that your dentist can help you. In fact, the opposite may well be true: your dentist could interpret your tension as a sign of a difficult patient, rather than as a sign of a phobic patient. The problem then is that this instantly closes off a number of possible treatment routes which could help a phobic patient.

The good news is that the dental profession does seem to be winning the battle of hearts and minds.
In 1988, a survey of oral health in the UK found 60% of people were “to some extent… nervous of some kinds of dental treatment”. A decade later, that figure had dropped to 32%.