Patient in dentist chair
Anxious in the dental chair? Tell the dentist or dental hygienist so they can address your concerns and provide options to help you feel your best during your visit.
Nervous dental patients—you’re not alone. Dentists see the likes of you all the time. From those who are a bit jittery about going to the dentist to those with anxiety, many people of all ages share a general wariness about sitting in the dental chair.
Fortunately, dentists are on your side. Thanks to numerous techniques embraced by dentists, new technology, and a variety of pain prevention tools, they are working to ease your fears and ensure that you stay relaxed and comfortable throughout your entire visit.
Talk It Out
Dentists can’t calm your nerves if they don’t know you feel anxious. A good dentist will take time to have a heart to heart with you about your past experiences and try to understand the root causes of your nervousness, says Dr. David A. Cook of Smiles at France.
Knowing why you feel worried helps dentists address that fear. Do you have trouble getting numbed up? Some people need more assistance than others. Did you have a bad experience in the past? Do you need to feel in control and able to take breaks? Dentists generally can accommodate requests when they know what you need, Cook says.
Dr. Chad Boger emphasizes staffing Boger Dental with a compassionate team. “A person’s mouth is a very personal space and for those with anxiety or a phobia, it can feel invasive,” he says. “We need to be aware of how patients are feeling and what we are doing so they can feel as comfortable as possible.”
Dr. Walter Palmer of River Bluff Dental says clear, unhurried communication about each treatment is paramount. “It’s been my experience that the best way to keep people relaxed is to not hurry them. Spend time with them and make sure they have a clear understanding of what’s going to be done,” he says.
Often it’s the little things that help: a cozy blanket or a neck wrap that was warmed up in a microwave, a pair of sunglasses or an eye mask to block out the bright lights. Some dentists try to make their offices feel more spa-like to help patients relax. Others, like Dr. John Cretzmeyer of Dentistry for the Entire Family, provide distractions like noise-canceling headphones and televisions over each chair.
Dr. Donna Hecker of CityWest Prosthodontics encourages patients to come to her office in comfortable, loose-fitting clothes, whether that means pajamas, yoga pants, or a favorite sweatshirt. She uses aromatherapy scents like lavender and eucalyptus to de-stress patients and keep them calm. Patients can listen to music or a book on tape, and Hecker makes sure to give them frequent breaks during long appointments.
Spa-like atmosphere dentist office
From heated wraps to noise-canceling headphones, many dentist offices provide a spa-like atmosphere.
“Many times it’s anticipation of pain, so you have to use a gentle touch. If you are heavy-handed, you get patients right out of the chair. We listen and watch their eye movements and hands. If they are trying to grip the armrests of the chair or their eyes go into panic mode, we take time out and see how they are doing and see how we can make it more comfortable for them.”
—Dr. John Cretzmeyer, Dentistry for the Entire Family
Dentists have long used anesthesia to help patients tolerate procedures like fillings, root canals, and crowns. But now those pain blockers—and the way they are delivered—are better than ever. Dr. Aaron Swingdorf of Chaska Dental Center uses an anesthetic wand that eliminates the need for syringes. He numbs the area with a topical anesthetic, then uses a motorized pump with an IV-style pen to infuse the anesthesia. “It allows us to use a smaller gauge needle, which is always a good thing,” Swingdorf says. “Most patients say they don’t feel a thing.”
Another option recently approved by the FDA is a nasal spray anesthetic called Kovanaze, an idea first used by ear, nose, and throat doctors. It completely numbs the front teeth back to the first molar, as well as the gums, but not the lips, explains Dr. Steve Gorman of The Gorman Center for Fine Dentistry. No more needles or that fat-lip feeling after having dental work. It will work well for any procedure at the front of the mouth, especially veneers, he says.
New Numbing Techniques
Understanding that some patients are harder to get numb than others, dentists also have improved the way they deliver anesthetics. Cook knows that many patients are anxious because they have difficulty getting numb—a challenge he deals with personally. He honed an Australian dental technique for delivering anesthesia that targets nerves in different areas of the mouth. He also gives people plenty of time for medication to kick in because it takes longer for some than others, and uses additional anesthesia if necessary.
At Boger Dental, Dr. Chad Boger’s hygienists have a trick to help patients who struggle with routine cleanings. Some people with gum tissue sensitivity need to take the edge off, and a liquid topical desensitizer called Cetacaine does the trick. It is applied below the gum line and works for 30-60 minutes to reduce sensitivity. “Some people swear by it—they won’t have a treatment unless they have the topical,” Boger notes.
Opting for Sedation
When anesthesia alone just doesn’t cut it, some dentists help patients relax with short-acting anti-anxiety medication like Valium. Another option is nitrous oxide—otherwise known as laughing gas—a breathable, calming sedative. Dr. Atif Rizvi of Dentistry by Design favors nitrous for anxious patients because it works only while the person is inhaling it. As soon as it’s stopped, they sober up in minutes without side effects and can drive themselves home.
During more involved procedures, Rizvi administers conscious IV sedation to keep patients relaxed and dreamy but awake enough to answer questions. So if a patient is coming in to have wisdom teeth pulled or dental implants placed, he often will use conscious sedation to help them through these longer procedures.
“Patient anxiety is a challenge that all dental professionals deal with at one time or another. Treating our patients with care and kindness helps to ease anxiety and provide for a great dental experience. Every interaction with each of our team members builds a sense of confidence and trust, which helps to put our patients at ease. When patients know that you care about them, it leads to a greater sense of trust and a more positive outlook toward dentistry. The human heart and touch are powerful!”
—Dr. Nancy Norling, Nancy Norling, DDS
Thanks to advances in technology, dentists are able to do many procedures faster, better, and more efficiently. It’s becoming more common for dentists to use Cerec technology. This digital dentistry tool eliminates the need for physical impressions—goodbye, goop!—by using an intraoral camera to capture images of the mouth.
Cerec paves the way for one-day crowns, too. Using these digital images, dentists design and mill porcelain crowns right in their offices instead of needing to send impressions to a lab and wait two weeks. Now patients visit the dentist only once instead of twice to have a root canal or crown placed, says Dr. Tom Morgan of Babcock and Morgan Family Dental. “Taking digital impressions definitely can be more accurate than the traditional way,” he adds.
Lasers also are becoming a popular tool for dentists doing soft tissue work. Rizvi uses a diode laser for root canals or reshaping patients’ gums to fix a gummy smile, a procedure that previously meant surgery and recovery. The laser procedure is much more comfortable for patients, only requiring a topical anesthetic. Plus, people heal much faster and the results are excellent, he says.
Whether you get a bit nervous about seeing the dentist or have deep-seated fears, your dentist can help you get the oral care you need to stay healthy. Don’t be shy about speaking up, sharing your qualms, and getting coping assistance. Dentists have seen it all before and want to make sure you have a positive experience so that you keep coming back in the future.
Molly the therapy dog
Molly the therapy dog helping a patient stay calm during a procedure.
Dentists especially strive to make sure their youngest patients start on the road to good oral health on a happy note. They go out of their way to keep tiny tots to teens comfortable in the dental chair.
It starts by having parents bring their babies to the dentist at age 1 so they get familiar with the dentist, hygienist, equipment, and bright lights. Each time they visit, the team can do a bit more, from having kids sit in the dental chair to counting teeth.
At Camp Smile, the practice is all about bringing the fun, imagination, and a sense of adventure to a dental visit. Rainbow lights and televisions in the ceiling, a truck with lights that kids can drive, and reclaimed, painted skateboard decks all are things the clinic displays to catch a child’s eye and make the experience enjoyable.
“The number-one descriptor of our practice is fun,” says Dr. Bobbi Augustyn, a pediatric dentist at Camp Smile. “Everybody in the office is on the same page to put the child first and make sure they are having a good experience because we do not want this generation to dislike the dentist. It’s been my own personal mission to change that because we can and should like the dentist!”
Dr. David A. Cook of Smiles at France recommends that parents not instill fear in their kids by threatening them with getting cavities if they don’t brush. Talking about the pain of having their teeth drilled doesn’t help. Instead, explain how dentists can solve problems and help them stay healthy.
For those kids (and adults) with fear and anxiety, a bit of pet therapy often does the trick. Mary Reck, a dental assistant at Minnesota Dental Arts in Inver Grove Heights, brings her therapy dog Molly to work to help patients stay calm during cleanings or treatments. The pooch snuggles on patients’ laps or sits next to them, which changes the whole atmosphere.
“They are instantly happy, their blood pressure drops, and they put all of their attention on the dog,” says Reck. “It takes their mind off of all of it.”