Dentophobia: The Fear of Dentists
Say the word “dentist” in a crowded room, and like magic, faces turn pale. Any dental reference easily conjures up images of torture, and popular culture reflects this fact. “Happiness is your dentist telling you it won't hurt and then having him catch his hand in the drill,” said Johnny Carson. 1 It turned out that 3.7 percent of the participants had full-blown dentophobia, which means a paralyzing fear of dentists, compared to only 3.1 percent with acrophobia (fear of heights), or 2.7 percent with a profound fear of spiders.
Phobias aren’t the same as fears, by the way, but rather, they’re the extreme version of fear reactions. While fear doesn’t usually interfere with normal functioning, phobias do, and so they’re classified as mental disorders.2 People with agoraphobia, for instance, are so afraid of crowds that they’ll hole up in their homes, afraid to go out at all. People with snake phobia (ophidiophobia) don’t simply scream when they see a snake and then go on with life. Instead, they might remain terrified for hours or even days and have nightmares night after night. Likewise, those with dental phobia can have panic attacks just thinking about getting a filling. And even when the toothache makes the cheeks swell up, they’ll resist going to the dentist’s office. As Professor Tiril Willumsen of University of Oslo’s Section for Paediatric Dentistry and Behavioural Science explains,3
“If their phobia is extremely strong, they might find it uncomfortable doing anything with their teeth at all. Even brushing them can be too unpleasant,” she says. In fact, the bible of the mental health industry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), includes dental phobia in its lists of mental disorders.4
Most people who fear dentists don’t have full-blown phobias, but their fear may nevertheless keep them from scheduling appointments. The Dutch study mentioned above found that 24.3 percent of the participants were fearful enough to delay or avoid dental appointments, and while other fears were more prevalent—fear of snakes was found among 37.4 percent of the participants—the fact that nearly a quarter of the population has significant dental fear is impressive. In fact, dental fear is common enough to support a website called “Dental Fear Central,” complete with a very busy forum.
According to Dental Fear Central, there are four types of dental fear: first, fear of specific stimuli. You know—fear evoked by seeing the drill, the Novocain needle, the godawful smell. Next, distrust of dental personnel. Then there’s generalized anxiety, which means that the entire dental endeavor evokes fear—that you feel frightened even upon entering the waiting room. And finally, there’s fear of catastrophe, which means that you worry about passing out, bleeding out, dying in the dental chair and so on. The unifying factor in all these fears, though, is anxiety about pain and discomfort.
Considering the nature of the typical dental event, it’s not surprising that so many people find it frightening. Being trapped in a chair with a stranger’s hands in your mouth, all that saliva, all that blood (shame on you for not brushing and flossing). But those whose fear crosses over into full-blown phobia, who can’t get themselves into the chair at all, most often have suffered an unfortunate dental event in the past. Experts estimate that up to 85 percent of dental phobias develop in reaction to a bad experience getting previous dental treatment. And that means that in reality, a significant amount of bad experiences must occur during dental appointments.
It would be comforting to know that in spite of the dental trepidation you might feel, getting those x-rays and regular cleanings are all for the good. But what’s truly disconcerting is that, according to a recent New York Times expose, a whole lot of the accepted dental practices aren’t proven to be helpful or necessary at all.5 Among the possibly superfluous things named: annual dental x-rays, and regular scalings and cleanings—and how many dental phobics utterly dread scalings? (By the way, existing studies don’t necessarily support the use of flossing and interdental cleaners for long-term retention of good teeth. Can you believe it?)
Even if it weren’t for the pain and yuckiness factor, there’s plenty to fear dentistry-wise. As we’ve reported in the past, there’s a correlation between frequent dental x-rays and brain tumors. Those old amalgam fillings complete with mercury can wreak havoc with your health. And root canals can have devastating long-term health consequences. But on the other hand, you don’t want to walk around with infections in your mouth, because unaddressed dental issues also can cause considerable harm to your overall health.
The bottom line is that it’s important to find a dentist who has a natural health bent, who tries to avoid toxic substances and excessive x-raying, and who understands and attends to dental fear. Some dental offices offer videos on the ceiling to watch while undergoing procedures, give you noise-cancelling headphones, use aromatherapy, give warm blankets, use acupuncture to relax patients, offer biofeedback equipment to help with relaxation, and some even offer foot massages. You might not need such hand holding, but if you do, why not find the coziest office you can find, and in the meantime, consult the Holistic Dentistry Association website to search for someone you can trust.
- 1. https://www.amazon.com/review/R1P4RSN8AEESSK/ref=pe_1098610_137716200_cm_rv_eml_rv0_rv
- 2. Hatfield, Heather. “The Fear Factor: Phobias.” WebMD. 1 September 2016. http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/fear-factor-phobias
- 3. Kornellussen, Ida. “Why do we dread the dentist?” 6 February 2013. Science Nordic.
- 4. “What is Dental Phobia?” Dental Fear Central. 1 September 2016. http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/fears/dental-phobia/
- 5. Carroll, Aaron E. “Surprisingly Little Evidence for the Accepted Wisdom About Teeth.” 29 August 2016. The New York Times. 2 September 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/30/upshot/surprisingly-little-evidence-for-the-usual-wisdom-about-teeth.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=1