Apprehension and anxiety around visiting the dentist is a common set of feelings that some people associate with oral care. When anxiety focuses around the dentist’s office, people call this “dental anxiety.”

Dental anxiety is a common occurrence in the general population. It is not a diagnosable condition, nor does it cause any major disturbances to daily life.

Instead, it can cause a person to experience physical or psychological symptoms that a person may associate with visiting a dentist, which may cause them to avoid the dentist altogether.

This article explores dental anxiety, coping methods, potential causes, and more.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Dental anxiety is a physical or psychological reaction to an anticipated, potential danger that someone associates with a visit to the dentist’s office. It is a common reaction. In one 2017 study, researchers found that of over 300 participants, 19% had high levels of dental anxiety. They also acknowledged that previous studies had shown a general population rate of 50–80%.

Triggers of dental anxiety can include common items at a dentist’s office, such as drills or needles, or just the thought of the office in general.

Dental anxiety can cause a person to skip appointments or avoid going to the dentist altogether, which could negatively impact their oral health and, therefore, their overall health.

Dental anxiety vs. phobia vs. fear

Dental anxiety is not the same as either dental fear or phobia. However, many studies use fear and anxiety interchangeably, which can make it difficult to determine exactly which conditions researchers are referring to.

Dental fear occurs due to a specific, known cause. For example, a person with dental fear can identify exactly what they are afraid of, such as the drill or needles in their mouth.

By comparison, dental anxiety is a more generalized fear of the unknown that someone associates with the dentist’s office. This could be due to not knowing if something is wrong, worrying about certain treatments, or recalling pain from previous visits.

Both fear and anxiety can lead to emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral responses in a person.

Dental phobia is an extreme, persistent, and unrealistic fear or terror related to going to the dentist. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V) recognizes dental phobia as a specific type of phobia.

By contrast, researchers have noted that dental anxiety should likely be grouped as part of anxiety disorders in the DSM-5 rather than a specific dentist-related anxiety.

All three can lead to a person avoiding the dentist’s office or skipping appointments

The American Dental Association (ADA) suggests a person take the following measures to help alleviate their dental anxiety:

  • Distraction: Distractions can help a person calm down during a dental exam. Though options may be few, a person may find that listening to music, squeezing a stress ball, or imagining being at a calm, happy place helps.
  • Conversation: Prior to or during the exam, a person may find it is helpful to inform the dentist about their anxiety. This can also allow the dentist and their team to provide more compassionate care. It may also help a person to ask questions about what is happening, work out a signal to indicate they need a break, or talk with the dentist about anything that causes pain or discomfort during the exam.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness allows a person to focus on their immediate surroundings and situation so that they can find peace and relax in the moment without overreacting. A person can try to focus on their breathing or take a few minutes to review their body and relax their muscles from head to toe.

Symptoms of dental anxiety can vary between people. In other words, how one person responds to it may look completely different than how another does.

Experts have stated that the signs and symptoms of dental anxiety relate closely to the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Some potential symptoms a person may experience due to dental anxiety include:

  • increased or racing heartbeat
  • sweating
  • signs of panic or distress
  • decreased blood pressure
  • fainting
  • withdrawal from the situation, which could include humor or aggression to mask their fear

For many people, dental anxiety is not enough to affect their oral health. They can still visit the dentist and undergo routine care without it affecting their oral hygiene.

However, some people’s dental anxiety is enough for them to miss routine exams or never receive examinations. According to a 2017 study, over 20% of people with dental anxiety avoid visiting the dentist regularly, and an estimated 9–15% never visit the dentist at all.

Another study from 2018 noted that about 1 in 8 to 1 in 6 people visiting the dentist have reported their anxiety can be problematic to treatment. It also noted that dental fear occurs more frequently in women. However, the study was primarily describing fear or phobia, not necessarily dental anxiety.

Avoiding the dentist may increase the need for treatment, worsening oral health, and potential complications.

Dental anxiety can occur due to various potential reasons.

For some, previous negative experiences at the dentist’s office, such as having a cavity filled, or unpleasant experiences at any doctor’s office.

Other traumatic experiences may also contribute to anxiety, such as abuse, as can trust issues or fear of not being in control.

In a 2018 study, researchers showed that people with higher levels of dental anxiety also had a high rate of other comorbidities, including:

Dental anxiety is common in the general population. For many people, it does not affect their adherence to visiting the dentist and getting adequate dental care. For some, the anxiety and, in some cases, fear of going to the dentist can result in not getting adequate care. This can lead to future issues with their oral health that will require higher levels of treatment and care.

A person dealing with dental anxiety can take small steps to alleviate their anxiety. These can include conversations with the dentist, finding distractions, or finding ways to relax when visiting the dentist.