Are You Afraid of the Dentist?

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Story Updated: Dec 26, 2012

My friend Victoria had nagging tooth pain for weeks, before she tweeted, "Anybody know a dentist who sedates you?" Victoria once told me that her dental fears actually started in her teens when she had a bad experience getting out her wisdom teeth.

As fate would have it, I ran across her tweet the same day I saw this study about what prevents people from seeing a dentist. Apparently, Victoria is not alone: One in 10 adults are afraid to see the tooth doc too.

So, to help her, I talked to Dr. Arthur Weiner, a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry and author of The Fearful Dental Patient: A Guide to Understanding and Managing. "Is sedation a good solution for someone who is scared of a procedure?" I asked.

"Not at all!" responded Weiner. Apparently, I hit a nerve. Although many dentists offer sedation -- and Weiner even did earlier in his career -- he feels it doesn't fix the problem. "When you sedate people, they are still going to avoid going to the dentist the next time they need treatment or preventive care." What's more, sedation isn't safe for many older patients or those who are taking certain medications, explains Weiner.

"So what's a better approach?" I asked.

"Finding a dentist who can ease your fears by answering all your questions," answered Weiner. "Think about why you don't want to see a dentist -- what's the root of your fear -- and then make a list of things to ask about. I've had patients who have refused a root canal, for instance, but then after I took 10 minutes to explain what was going to happen, they went ahead. And it's never been as bad as they thought it would be," adds Weiner.

Of course, not all dentists will be that patient. So the trick is to shop around for one who is before it becomes an emergency. "Call three or four dental offices, tell them about your situation, and see how they respond," advises Weiner. "From there, you should have a good idea of who you want to make an appointment with."

And for people like my friend Victoria, who have waited too long and need to be out of pain pronto, Weiner recommends using relaxation and visualization techniques like these when they're in the dentist's chair. According to research, hypnosis is also effective at calming dental fears (read more about it here).

When I called Victoria to find out how she fared with her toothache, she said, "I needed a cavity filled. The dentist put me under. I was groggy for the rest of the day -- and I'm glad I don't need to go back there again."

"You need to find someone who can make you feel comfortable without sedation for your checkups," I told her. Then I emailed her the number of my dentist -- a man who lets me change the TV channel in the room to whatever goofy distraction I want during my appointment. "Let me think about it," she said. Well, at least that's a start.

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