Let’s be honest. Not too many people are thrilled with the prospect of visiting a medical specialist of any sort if they can help it. Especially the dentist. After all, we are paying large amounts of money for a guy, or their assistant to literally invade our mouths with tools that look like they they belonged to the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, we have a name for people who are outright paralyzed by fear of the prospect of getting an appointment, Dentophobia. But how did this all start in the first place? What usually kickstarted the idea that tooth decay was a more preferable option than getting proper dental care? Is there anything that the dental industry can do to assuage the fear of the general public? Let’s find out.
What is Dentophobia?
As I mentioned earlier, dentophobia is an irrational fear of the dentist. While it is not uncommon for people to feel uneasy about the prospect, they still manage to drag themselves to cleaning at least once a year. But for people with dentophobia, it is 100 times worse. The 9-15% of Americans that suffer from this will easily put up with gum disease, tooth decay, or any other long term pain just to avoid the visit. While the percentage may look small, you need to remember that the American population is currently in the hundreds of millions. So, that means that 30 to 40 million people are crippled by their fear of the dentist. And that is not a good thing.
In fact, all this tension from stress, combined with a lack of oral care can cause major problems down the road, like lower life expectancy, heart disease, and other illnesses that can be exposed to the bloodstream in the gum. The fear may be irrational, but it is still present enough to do a lot of damage in the long run.
But, how did it all start? There are a few avenues in which people can become irrationally afraid of the dentist. Some of which may make more sense than most people realize.
There are a lot of habits and traditions that human beings have developed over time for the sake of survival. For instance, our initial instinct of prejudice as a gut reaction is a hard-wired survival mechanism to warn us of possible strangers or invaders. It is of not useful to us now, because we no longer need to compete with other tribes for resources. We have since learned how to cooperate in a lot of ways. But it is still there.
The same thing can be applied to our instinctual fear of making our mouths vulnerable. Our mouths and noses are the only two passageways that we have for getting air into our mouths. The mouth is the bigger passageway to getting air into the lungs, so if it is compromised, that can put someone in a panic. Holding your mouth forcibly open for long periods of time is uncomfortable in general because it is an unnatural position to keep, let alone a vulnerable experience for the patient who uses that to breathe. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
The Association Between Dental Visits, Helplessness, and Pain
Technology has certainly marched on when it comes to communication, entertainment, and medical science. The same is true for dentistry. There are pain-free procedures that are more readily available than there was as recent as 10 years ago. However, people, who are pain sensitive that have been exposed to dental visits decades ago may not have gone through such a pain-free experience. According to an ABC article covering the topic, “Thirty years ago they had to just grin and bear it,” said Indru Punwani, head of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Pediatric Dentistry. “Adults remember that, but times have changed.” Moreover, due to lasers and improved drill bits, more procedures can be conducted with nitrous than ever before.”
So, anyone with major pain sensitivity that had to bear it just a few decades ago are still suffering some of the scars of painful procedures that happen in the past. In fact, these scars run so deep, that they are relying on the learned behavior of avoiding pain entirely. And if they are old enough to remember that, they are probably old enough to have had children. Children that they do not want to expose such a painful experience.
And it is not hard to find proof of the terror that patients have felt from visiting the dentist. Look at the Little Shop of Horrors and any horror movie where they use old fashioned dental equipment. It also doesn’t help that the man who invented the electric chair was also a dentist.
So, what can we do to assuage the fears of the public? Is there anything that anyone can do to keep people from being terrified? Or at least put people more at ease? Yes, there is.
Solutions to Dentophobia
Anxious people are more afraid of what they built up in their head than the truth. In fact, people tend to think the worst case scenario, even when it isn’t within the realm of possibility. So, it is up to the dental and orthodontal industry to clear up some misconceptions. Arrange events and allow people to visit the office. Talk to local schools about the latest technology available and what it does. The more active you are with your community, whether that be Austin, Texas or NewYork, NewYork, the more people are at ease with what you do and how you do it.
A few more ideas include:
- Host lectures about sedation for people who are particularly terrified of a pain filled experience.
- Show off the latest technology in your trade. Especially the pain-free measures.
- Offer some sort of stress relief tools that patients can squeeze when they are nervous.
- Play some calming music for a relaxed environment.
The more you educate the public and engage with positive customer service practices, the far more likely people will keep coming back.