Nervous patients: dental phobia and fear of the dentist

Dental phobia is a serious condition that affects a large proportion of the population that does not regularly see a dentist. Many people are so fearful or anxious about visiting the dentist that they let their oral health suffer as a result. Many dentists report that anxious patients often have problems with their gums, with infection and chronic gum disease being commonplace amongst anxious patients. It is important to see a dentist regularly so that they can assess and deal with problems before they worsen and become irreversible (gum disease), painful (dental abscesses) or expensive. With modern dentistry, there are many techniques and methods to help overcome your anxieties and make your dental experience comfortable and even enjoyable!

Why are people phobic or fearful of the dentist?

There are several reasons why people are phobic about visiting the dentist. It may be something as simple as the clinical smell of a dental practice that puts people off or a previous bad experience that has scarred an individual for life. Below are a few reasons why you may be phobic about visiting the dentist. Rest assured that you are not alone: there are many millions of people that suffer from dental phobia.

  • Previous negative experience – you may have had a bad experience in the past that has put you off going to the dentist. This may be due to a painful procedure, a phobia of needles, or even a personality conflict with a dentist or dental staff.

  • Embarrassed about your oral health and the condition of your teeth and gums - you may have neglected your oral health and your teeth over the years and are embarrassed about visiting your dentist for fear of what they might think or say to you. Many people fear that their dentist will ridicule or belittle them.

  • You may have a fear of dental instruments being placed in your mouth. This may trigger a gag reflex or cause an anxious feeling where you find it difficult to breathe.

  • Unsympathetic dentists – you may have had an experience with a dentist who was not sympathetic to your needs and concerns, and this has put you off going back to see a dentist.

  • You may have a fear due to the stereotype of dentists on the TV, in the press or amongst friends and family. If you haven’t been to a dentist before, it may simply be a fear of the unknown.

You may fall into one of the categories above or have several reasons for your dental phobia, but the first step you can make in overcoming this fear is to recognise it and know that something can be done about it. There are several ways in which many dentists will try to help you overcome your anxieties, and many things that you yourself can do. These include:

  • Communicating your fears and concerns – a dentist that is a good listener can go a long way towards relieving your anxieties. It is important that you can talk about your fears and concerns with your dentist openly and comfortably. If you find that the dentist or the staff are not sympathetic towards your concerns, you should seek a dentist that is.
  • A full explanation of the procedures involved – often something as simple as your dentist explaining how the procedure will be carried out step by step, or giving you the opportunity to ask questions, will relieve that fear of the unknown. It is important that your dentist explains things in non-technical, easy-to-understand language.
  • Try to be open and honest with your dentist if you feel embarrassed about the condition of your teeth or your lack of previous dental care. Most dentists will have seen many cases of dental neglect - they will probably have seen teeth that are in a much worse state than yours. The important thing is that you're taking a step in the right direction to resolve the issue.
  • Relaxation and distraction techniques – many dentists offer distraction and relaxation techniques such as an aromatherapy massage, hypnotherapy, relaxing music, virtual vision DVD goggles and scented candles or oils to mask any clinical smells.
  • Using a pain-free injection technique – before giving an injection, your dentist can apply a numbing gel (topical anaesthetic) to your gums. Giving the injection slowly reduces the pressure and causes less pain. Some dentists use a local anaesthetic delivery system called “The Wand” which delivers the local anaesthetic slowly via a computerised system and doesn’t look like a syringe. Some dentists will talk to you whilst giving the injection to distract you from the anxiety of having an injection.
  • Sedation, both oral or intravenous, can be used to put you in a relaxed, dream-like state of mind. Sedation is an effective treatment for very anxious patients. To learn more about sedation dentistry, visit our dental sedation page or visit