Now that life in New Orleans has returned to normal (knock on wood), it seems like there’s always something to look forward to, whether it’s a festival, summer vacation, or just celebrating Christmas. friend’s birthday. A visit to the dentist, however, probably doesn’t do the trick. Some people actually dread the thought of taking care of their oral health.
According to the National Library of Medicine, dental anxiety affects almost 36% of the country – and 12% of the population suffers from extreme dental fear.
Dr. Michael Tufton, who runs Tufton Family Dentistry with Dr. Peter Tufton, says dental anxiety stems from a few factors.
“They don’t want to be hurt. They are afraid of blows. They are afraid of tools, thinking something is going to be very painful,” he said. “Most people don’t like the sound of the high-pitched drill; they associate it with pain. Often their anxiety stems from a very bad experience they had, perhaps when they were children.
Along with traumatic experiences, “fear of the unknown” is another major reason people cringe when faced with the prospect of going to the dentist, said Dr. Erin Luft Katz, owner of Smile Uptown.
“Patients come in not knowing what kind of treatment they need, if something is going to hurt them, how it’s going to feel, how long it’s going to take and that sort of thing,” she said.
Explaining to these patients what type of dental work will be needed and why — and detailing how it will be accomplished — provides a sense of comfort, she added.
Dentists can also administer nitrous oxide to nervous people. The temporary anesthetic — also known as laughing gas — calms patients and eases their anxiety, but it doesn’t stop them from going about their business after their appointment, Katz said.
His practice offers headphones, but Katz recommends patients bring their own if possible. Listening to a podcast, audiobook, or music can distract them from any external factors that increase anxiety. Even noise-canceling headphones will do, she said.
To prevent pain from oral injections, Tufton uses a special tool called DentalVibe, which sends a vibration to the patient’s cheek. The vibration dominates the nerve that sends pain signals to the brain, so the patient does not register discomfort from the injection. The vibration also helps disperse the anesthesia once it is injected, allowing the anesthesia to quickly get to work.
“Dentistry has changed a lot and things have improved. There are different tools to help alleviate fears of pain,” he said, adding that all procedures should be painless anyway. “Once you’ve had the anesthesia to numb the tooth, there shouldn’t be any pain associated with anything we’re doing.”
However, the best way for patients to avoid the anxiety surrounding dental work is to find a dentist who makes them feel comfortable, Tufton said.
“Dentists have different personalities and ways of doing things, so whether the patient is comfortable with the person doing the procedures is a big factor,” he said. “You can have all the tools to make things painless, but if they’re not comfortable with the person providing the service, it’s going to be hard to overcome those fears and anxiety.”
Katz also stresses the importance of the dentist-patient relationship and the ability of the two individuals to communicate with each other.
“I find talking about the date ahead of time and building that level of trust and communication helps a lot,” she said. “I’ve had patients say they’ve been absolutely terrified of going to the dentist before – that’s why they’re in this situation and have to come and see me for several dates – and realize that they had somehow worked into something that he is not.
Avoidance is not the answer
Unsurprisingly, avoiding the dentist altogether will lead to bigger problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40% of adults have experienced mouth pain in the past year.
Almost 10% of children between the ages of two and five suffer from untreated cavities. For adults, aged 20 to 64, the number jumps to 25%. After all, cavities are one of the most common chronic diseases people experience in life, even though they are highly preventable, the CDC notes.
Unfortunately, untreated tooth decay can cause a serious infection under the gums which then spreads to other parts of the body and creates serious health risks, such as endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers or valves; heart disease; complications of pregnancy and childbirth; and pneumonia, as certain bacteria in your mouth can be drawn into your lungs. (The MayoClinic details these issues on its website.)
Regular visits to the dentist can also serve as a cancer screening. In 2016, there were nearly 45,000 new cases of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx diagnosed in the United States, the CDC said. The 5-year survival rate for these cancers is approximately 61%. Early detection is the key to increasing the survival rate.
“I think the goal for most health care providers is preventative care,” Katz said. “Whether it was a toothache or gum disease, or the loss of a tooth, it could have been avoided if you had acted sooner. If we can tackle time-related issues sooner, we can usually get a better result than if we wait until it’s a bigger problem.
More facts from the CDC:
More … than 80% of people will experience at least one cavity before the age of 34.
The nation spends more than $124 billion in dental care costs each year.
On average, more than 34 million school hours and more than $45 billion in productivity is lost each year due to dental emergencies requiring unplanned care.