How to Manage Dental Fear in Patients

One of the main contributors to poor oral health is dental fear (dentophobia). Roughly 36% of people in the U.S. experience dentophobia, and this condition can manifest itself in many ways. As a dentist, you must demonstrate a deep understanding of dentophobia while taking precautionary steps to relieve patients of their fears.

In this article, we’ll discuss a couple of tips you can use to manage dental fear in patients and hopefully, meet their oral care needs.

1. Communication is key

The first step in addressing dental fear is to communicate with your patients. Show them that you understand where they’re coming from and want to help them as much as possible. Start by asking icebreaker questions to help your patient relax and foster a positive atmosphere. Once they feel comfortable communicating, you can follow up with questions such as:

  • When did their fear of the dentist start?
  • Have they had a negative experience with a dentist before?
  • What are their thoughts on specific treatments like root canals and fillings?

Many factors contribute to dentophobia, but the most common include past negative experiences, misinformation regarding dental procedures, and fear of pain. You want to assert professionalism by explaining how treatments work and how dentists ensure they have a pain-free experience.

If they have experienced extreme discomfort before, explain the possible causes of what went wrong with the procedure. At worst, they should only be able to feel slight soreness or numbing and not throbbing pain.

Having good communication skills is vital to alleviating the fears your patients experience when they visit your practice. Listen to your patients and display genuine empathy to obtain their trust and make them feel comfortable inside your office.

2. Understand that fear is different from anxiety

Most people often use the words fear and anxiety interchangeably, but in reality, these two terms have entirely different meanings. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety can be described as emotions related to worry and tension whereas fear (in this case, dentophobia) relates to an extreme response, whether physical, emotional, or psychological.

If a patient feels anxious when they visit the dentist’s office, they may express slight concern about the treatment and still move forward with it. In contrast, a patient with dentophobia may refuse to visit the dentist entirely or panic when they arrive at the office.

You can help patients with anxiety in multiple ways. You can switch to calming colors like green or blue for your dental office design to make patients feel right at home. You can also offer amenities like television or WiFi to keep patients entertained while they wait for their treatment.

However, patients with dental phobias require special attention to alleviate their fears which we’ll go over in the next steps. 

3. Practice exposure therapy with your patients

Exposure therapy is a type of behavioral therapy that aims to help individuals overcome their fears by gradually exposing them to the object of their fear in a safe and controlled environment. It is a well-established and effective treatment for various anxiety disorders, including phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

During exposure therapy, a therapist will guide the individual through a series of progressively challenging scenarios that involve the object of their fear. Smartphone-delivered exposure therapy is one example where patients view images related to dental treatment situations, and the results were highly acceptable.

Exposure therapy works by allowing the individual to confront their fears in a safe and controlled environment, which helps to reduce anxiety and desensitize them to the object of their fear. By repeatedly exposing the individual to the object of their fear, they can learn to tolerate the anxiety and eventually overcome it.

4. Guide your patients in getting the help they need

Patients with dentophobia have unique needs, meaning there’s no universal solution to treating their condition. There are instances where patients may still exhibit intense fear after you put in the effort, but understand that each patient responds differently.

The best thing you can do to help patients with dentophobia is to connect them with a licensed therapist to diagnose their condition and recommend the appropriate treatment. Guide your patients in getting the help they need, and one day they’ll be able to visit your office with full confidence.

5. Validate the emotions of your patients

The last but perhaps most important step in managing dentophobia is to acknowledge the patient’s condition and treat it with utmost care. Validating the emotions of patients is important because it helps to build a therapeutic relationship and can improve patient outcomes, thus leading to better trust connections.

Here are a couple of ways to validate the emotions of your patients:

  • Listen actively: When a patient expresses their emotions, it is important to listen attentively and with empathy. Show the patient that you are paying attention to their feelings by nodding your head, maintaining eye contact, and providing verbal cues such as “I understand,” or “I hear what you’re saying.”
  • Reflect back: Reflect back on the patient’s emotions to show that you understand how they are feeling. For example, if a patient expresses fear about a medical procedure, you might say, “It sounds like you’re feeling really scared about the procedure.”
  • Validate the emotion: Let the patient know that their emotions are understandable and acceptable. For example, you might say, “It’s completely normal to feel anxious about this procedure. We will do everything we can to make you feel comfortable.”
  • Avoid minimizing or dismissing emotions: It is important to avoid minimizing or dismissing the patient’s emotions. Phrases such as “Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal” or “You shouldn’t feel that way” can make the patient feel invalidated.

In summary

Dental fear is a common (and valid) reason why most patients forgo seeing the dentist’s office and receive the oral care treatment they need. When you encounter patients with dental fear, know that it takes empathy and compassion on your end to make it work for both parties. Hopefully, you can extract that fear out of your patients and show that there is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to dental treatments.

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