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Helping patients with dental anxiety

22 November 2019

Helping patients with dental anxiety

As dentists, we see nervous patients on a daily basis. Despite us being there to help it is understandable that no one eagerly anticipates our services. Most patients manage to deal with their unease easily but for some patients, dental anxiety is a serious problem that impacts the quality of care dentists are able to provide.

Research suggests that 20% of people suffer some form of anxiety before visiting a dentist. Of this number a fifth suffer from anxiety so severe, it prevents them seeking treatment from a dentist – even in emergencies.

With that in mind, we thought we would share some of the best ways to help patients with dental anxiety:

Talk to patients first

Often discussing treatments with patients and making small talk is enough to help them relax. We have patients who like to take breaks in their treatments and who would rather be distracted by idle chit chat at all times. Sometimes a dental assistant will sit in with our patients, or a friend of the patient, to help keep them distracted.

Allow patients to relax

Creating a relaxing atmosphere in your practice and in your theatre are essential for preventing patients from feeling anxious. Soothing music helps patients relax and we recommend this in your actual treatment rooms. Light colours, natural light, and vegetation all help patients feel more relaxed and open. Though our practices are clinical places we should try and make them feel as un-clinical as possible as patients react less positively to hospital-like environments.

Teach them exercises

If the patient is still exhibiting signs of distress, we would recommend you teach them a few simple relaxation techniques. Patients under pressure tend to tense up and often will breathe heavily. If you spot these tell-tale signs we recommend stopping and teaching them this simple breathing exercise.

Tell the patient to breathe in for a slow count of three through their nose. Then tell them to exhale for a slow count of three through the nostrils again. This exercise is designed to relax the nervous system, decrease the heart rate and distract the patient and it works exceptionally well.

Discuss alternative treatment options

We see alternative treatment options as a last resort – they are costly and don’t necessarily get to the root of the problem. The main alternative treatments are sedation and therapy. Sedation is an expensive treatment and, though it helps patients relax, it doesn’t overcome their initial anxiety. For this reason, it should be used as a last resort.

For the patients with extreme dental phobia, we would recommend you refer them to therapy. Therapy is sometimes the only way that we can tackle the underlying causes of their fears. A therapist will be able to help treat the underlying problem which as dentists we are not equipped to do.


This article was originally published in August 2016.

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