If, like me, you started going to the dentist in the 1960s, you won’t look back upon the experience with fondness. The overpowering antiseptic smell, the blinding overhead light, the row of instruments glinting in the rack and, yes, the drill; that whining, evil monster waiting to inflict pain no matter how diligently you had brushed your teeth. It is not difficult to recall the sense of dread such visits invoked.
Until I reached my twenties and moved to London – and hence found a new dentist – I thought it was normal to endure a filling without pain relief, no matter how severe the procedure.
“For many adults now in their fifties, their childhood experience of going to the dentist was not a pleasant one,” says Dr Douglas Miller, a dentist who specialises in working with anxious and phobic adults.
“Dental attitudes then, well, you did as you were told. You sat and took it. You hear tales of young children being held down as they were given painful injections. Some have been blighted for life by the experience.”
One-third have fear of the drill
The 2009 Dental Health Survey revealed that 12 per cent of adults who had ever been to a dentist had a Modified Dental Anxiety Scale score of 19 or more, which indicates an extreme amount.
Thirty per cent had a fear of their tooth being drilled and 28 per cent were scared of injections. Noise and antiseptic smells figured large on the anxiety scale, too. Many admitted a fear of being judged on their lack of courage.
As adults, though, they’ve gone past the point of having their parents drag them kicking and screaming to the surgery.
All it takes is something like pressure at work, your regular dentist leaving his practice or a missed appointment to break the habit of regular check-ups, and before you know it, you and the dentist are old news.
The time is now
However, once we hit our fifties, not only are we more susceptible to gum disease but we also need more restoration and maintenance. If there is any time when we need to see the dentist on a regular basis, it is now.
“There is a strong association with poor gum health and diabetes and cardiac disease,” says Dr Miller. “Medication also has an impact on dental health. For instance, you might be on medication for high blood pressure and that can cause a dry mouth, a factor in increasing levels of tooth decay.”
People who suffer from dental phobia will do anything in their power to avoid a visit to the dentist, says Miller. The thing that will eventually motivate them to make an appointment is severe pain. Unfortunately, not only will this mean that more work needs to be done on their teeth, but it will be more expensive.
“You have to reach out to patients who wouldn’t normally come to you,” he says. “There are a variety of techniques we use nowadays to reduce their fear. We listen to patients and give them control.
“Sessions with a dental phobia counsellor can help, too, using techniques such as Neuro Linguistic Programming, Cognitive Behavourial Therapy and discussing how they view fear.
“As for procedures such as dental injections, there are numbing pastes that are applied to the gum before the injection is given, and these are so effective that the vast majority of patients are unaware they’ve even had the injection. Drills are quieter and less obtrusive and patients are surprised how gentle and painless the procedures can be.”
How to find the right dentist
So what is the best way to find a dentist who will take your fears seriously? That’s where our trusty assistant, the internet, comes in. “Search Google using phrases such as dental phobia, dental fear or dental sedation,” says Dr Miller.
“Make sure your dentist has very good listening and communication skills. Phone around and ask to speak to the dentist. Even if they can’t speak to you there and then, they will respond to you if they have a real interest. So don’t be fobbed off.
“Look for good feedback and testimonials.
“Nervous patients need longer appointment times, to give the dentist opportunity to give them control over what happens. It’s really important that the patient knows the dentist is on their side.”
And not looming over them with that damn drill…