A negative reaction, thought, or feeling toward any dental treatment can take many various forms and levels of intensity. In general, this distinction is made between dental anxiety, dental fear, and a dental phobia. Please find below an explanation of these terms:
Anxiety is an extremely common reaction to an unpleasant sensation or thought. Most people will experience some form of dental anxiety in their lives, in particular when having an uncomfortable procedure being performed, or one that they have not experienced before. Typically this anxiety may be to an injection, root canal treatment, or an extraction. It may even be due to a first ever filling, or the ‘unknown’ of what is going to happen next during treatment of any kind.
Essentially, dental anxiety is a mild to moderate fear of the unknown. For example, nearly every person has heard of a root canal or wisdom tooth removal ‘horror story’ that causes a person to become extremely anxious about the proposed treatment before it even occurs. However, both of these procedures are relatively very straight forward, should not take exorbitant amounts of time, and should be as pain free as possible when conducted by an experienced practitioner.
Actual fear of an event, a certain stimulus, or scenario involves a ‘fight or flight’ response to either a known or an unknown danger. The person’s response to the fear (originating from the Sympathetic Nervous System) typically involves a fast heart rate, dilated pupils, and rapid shallow breathing. Avoidance of the dental treatment or stimulus therefore is most often the course of action the majority of people with a dental fear will take.
A dental phobia is very similar to a dental fear, however occurs with much stronger feelings and reactions. Anxiety or panic attacks are not uncommon, and avoidance of the stimulus or dental treatment is much higher and pronounced and the fight or flight response occurs just thinking about or being reminded about dental treatment.
A person with a dental phobia will avoid any and all dental treatment until the psychological or physical burden of dental disease and symptoms becomes overwhelming. These people require the highest level of assistance in overcoming their phobia, and it is not uncommon for well established psychological cognitive behavioural techniques to be employed along with a range of sedative techniques for any dental treatment.
Persons suffering dental anxiety, fear, or phobias are often told things like ‘don’t be so silly, its only a dental visit’, or ‘nobody likes going to the dentist so toughen up’. These comments are neither helpful, nor aid the person in overcoming their barriers to accessing dental care. Another issue that can often occur, is that people with fears and phobias may end up at a dental practice that is not able to fully understand or manage their condition. It is not uncommon for situations to arise where the person’s fear or phobia are then made worse due to negative experiences.