Ever since the economy took its nose-dive several years ago, conventional wisdom has said that more people are avoiding dental visits due to the cost of care. Surveys have shown that anywhere from 36 to 75% of those who delay or forego dental work give financial concerns as their main reason why.
But that’s far from the only reason. There’s also fear.
In fact, research from the University of Washington Dental School found that about half of all Americans say it’s the main reason they avoid the dentist. About 10% of the population suffers from severe dental anxiety.
Now science is giving new insight into what may fuel the fear: sound.
Having grouped study participants according to their degree of dental anxiety, researchers gave each an fMRI while playing sounds such as the whoosh and gurgle of a suction device and the whine of a drill. The team presented their findings at last month’s meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
According to The Guardian, when low anxiety individuals heard the dental sounds,
parts of the brain called the left and right superior temporal gyri responded more than when they heard neutral sounds. This, [lead researcher Hiroyuki] Karibe said, means that dental sounds triggered more activity in the primary auditory areas of the brain.
Anxious people responded differently. Instead of a surge of activity in the auditory areas of their brain, Karibe said he saw a more intense response in a region called the left caudate nucleus, which may play a role in learning and remembering the sounds of the dental instruments.
It’s that remembering – the storage of information – that intensifies anxiety, they suggest.
Of course, many a patient will confirm that, yes, the sounds are what make them most uncomfortable. For some, they can be more disconcerting than most physical sensations. This is why many opt for headphones while they’re having work done.
Favorite music, a good audiobook, a funny stand-up routine can do wonders by both blocking out unpleasant sounds and providing a real distraction from the procedures being done.
But this is far from the only means of dealing with dental fear.
Some office offices – ours included – can provide nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), which not only triggers relaxation but also provides an extra analgesic (pain-reducing) effect. Yet it wears off quickly once it’s turned off. If the patient drove to their appointment, they’ll be able to safely drive themselves home. (This isn’t the case with the “oral conscious sedation” favored by some dentists, in which longer-lasting drugs – typically, benzodiazepines such as Atavan or Valium – are used to “take the edge off.”)
Yet there are more natural remedies available, too, which you can safely use on your own prior to appointments. For instance, as biological dentist Dr. Vern Erwin writes,
There is a vast array of herbs that can help reduce anxiety, relax muscles and block pain. Among the most potent is valerian root, which can be bought as an extract and taken as drops in water. Along with other calming herbs such as hops, passionflower, chamomile, lemon balm, hyssop, mugwort, St. John’s wort and lavender, valerian can also be found in many herbal teas sold as “bedtime”, “sleep” or “calming” teas. Herbs can be taken both the night before and day of treatment for full effect.
Homeopathic options exist, as well, with two Bach Flower Remedies in particular having proved quite helpful: Mimulus and Rescue Remedy. The latter is formulated with rock rose, impatiens, cherry plum, star of Bethlehem and clematis and is an all-purpose remedy, generally used for stress or when there’s no opportunity to select a specific individual remedy. Mimulus, on the other hand, is a remedy for specific anxiety.
In a study in which participants took either Mimulus or Rescue Remedy for dental fear,
The results were remarkable – Of the 107 patients that reported suffering from an acute state of fear, 94% of the Rescue group and 84% of the Mimulus group said that their anxiety levels were reduced after taking the flower remedies. And 59% of the total Rescue group (who varied between being mildly nervous to being in an acute state of fear) said it helped significantly and 51% reported the same in the Mimulus group.
However, if the fear is both specific and causes “real terror,” says the Bach Centre, “Rock Rose might be preferred.”
Both botanical and homeopathic therapies may be even more effective when combined with other natural means of relaxation such as progressive relaxation or controlled breathing techniques. Visualization exercises – such as this wonderful one suggested by a holistic dentist in New York – can also help you get the upper hand on any dental anxiety you may have.
The main thing is to know that you do have options for successfully dealing with dental fear – that anxiety doesn’t have to be a reason to keep avoiding the dentist.