When I arrived at the dentist’s office for my implant procedure, I was already sweating and on the verge of tears.
After several shots of Novocaine, I felt no pain whatsoever. But that didn’t matter. I squirmed as I sensed incisions in my gums and heard drill collide with bone. I panicked about how intrinsically wrong it felt for someone to put titanium in my body. I worried: Would I be able to eat? To talk? Would I get an infection?
After an hour and a half, I returned to the receptionist swollen and tear-streaked. The periodontist joked, “She was shaking like a leaf, it was like a moving target!”
Not long afterward, I checked out my score on the Dental Anxiety Scale. My whole body tensed up when I read the first question: “If you went to your dentist for TREATMENT TOMORROW, how would you feel?” I scored a 21, which qualifies me as a “highly dentally anxious patient, possible dentally phobic.”
I have a lot of company. In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders estimates that almost 4 percent of people are “dental phobics.” According to the DSM, the prevalence rates for dental fears are similar to the rates of people who fear snakes or heights.
But we’re not quaking alone in the chair. Of late, researchers have been seeking to understand dental fear better, from its prevalence to the disparate elements that add up to phobia. For example, one recent brain scan study found that the buzz of the dental drill is a particular source of distress. And they’ve been exploring and testing potential remedies, from therapy to sedation.
Dr. Matthew Messina, a Cleveland dentist and consumer adviser for the American Dental Association, estimates that the rate of dental phobics is even higher than 4 percent. Around 10 percent of the adult population in the United States, Dr. Messina says, have a dental phobia so paralyzing it prevents regular dentist visits.
Dr. Lisa Heaton, a licensed clinical psychologist who treats patients at the University of Washington’s Dental Fears Research Clinic, says that up to 75 percent of adults have at least some anxiety about going to the dentist. Continue reading