Get Over It

Dealing with Dental Anxiety


Few of us would say we actually enjoy going to the dentist. But taking care of our teeth with checkups and cleanings every six months or so is a part of a healthy lifestyle, like mammograms and colonoscopies – not necessarily fun, but necessary for sure.

So we heave a sigh and head off to get our ivories X-rayed and prodded, scraped and polished, usually rediscovering that the whole experience, which we somehow managed to forget since our last appointment, wasn’t unpleasant at all. That is, unless we have dental anxiety. Then we may avoid going to the dentist altogether, which can negatively impact us in a variety of ways.
Dr. Michael Verber, CEO and president of Camp Hill’s Verber Dental Group, has seen firsthand the effect dental anxiety can have on a patient’s life. He recently treated a young woman who had once been addicted to drugs, causing her teeth to deteriorate.

“While she had been clean for over decade,” Verber notes, “she avoided the dentist out of fear…fear of pain, fear of cost, but most of all, fear of being judged. She was embarrassed by her smile and felt it was hurting her professionally. She wouldn’t smile at job interviews. Here she was brushing and flossing every day, doing everything she could do to live a healthy lifestyle, but she had these teeth that needed help to prevent further breakdown.”

Verber was eventually able to alleviate the woman’s fears by helping her understand her issues and then creating – with her input – a treatment plan with which she was comfortable. He even phased her treatment so she was able to spread the cost of it out over several years. In doing so, Verber not only significantly increased his patient’s quality of life, he may also have prolonged it.

“Without regular dental care,” Verber explains, “little issues become big expensive issues, and oral disease can spread to the rest of the body. Hundreds of studies are now published every year proving that chronic inflammation, like the type represented by periodontal (gum) disease, is a risk factor for many systemic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, pulmonary disease, cancer, erectile dysfunction and dozens of others. The link between oral inflammation and arterial disease is so strong that the nation’s leading cardiologists are now describing oral disease as one of the single most important factors leading to strokes, heart attacks and other vascular issues.”

While embarrassment of the type Verber’s patient experienced is often cited as a common cause of dental anxiety, experts believe fear of pain and feelings of helplessness or loss of control are also culprits – so, too, may be past trauma. But no matter the cause, to help allay dental anxiety, it’s crucial that you build trust with your dentist.

“Find someone you’re comfortable with,” Dr. Rina Singh of Camp Hill’s West Shore Smiles advises. “A dentist who listens to the patient’s needs, hears what they’re anxious about, takes time to explain things and provides a relaxing environment can definitely help the anxious patient.”

Pharmaceutical interventions may be also available, like nitrous oxide. Also commonly known as laughing gas, it’s a mild sedative administered through a small mask that fits over the nose. For more serious cases of anxiety, sedation or twilight sedation, which leaves the patient conscious but relaxed and unable to feel pain, may be used.

Singh’s practice, which utilizes nitrous oxide and sedation when necessary, has developed a system of care designed to soothe all patients, not only the ones struggling with anxiety.

“We have some chairs that do a slight little massage,” she says. “And then we use a heated neck pillow with some aromatherapy. We make sure our patients understand what we’re going to be doing today, ask them if they have questions and make sure they are adequately numb, so they don’t have any reason to be scared. We offer Pandora music and ear buds for patients with an iPod, and we also offer cinema glasses for our child patients.”

According to the Colgate Oral and Dental Health Resource Center, between nine to 15 percent of Americans – 30 to 40 million people – dodge the dentist due to fear. While this may not constitute a national health crisis, any technique that can be used to ease dental anxiety should be, including methods as simple as sincerity.

“If everyone in the practice,” says Verber, “from the person greeting them at the front door to the doctor doing the work, is sincere about giving the patient the best care and experience, the patient will gain confidence. It’s sincerity that wins the day.”