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Shelley Shearer: Stop fearing the dentist — anxiety shouldn’t prevent you from proper preventive care

Each year severe fear and anxiety prevent millions of Americans from seeking proper preventive dental care. The consequences of this problem may go far beyond dental pain or lost teeth. Gum disease is a serious infection that can affect other parts of the body. Studies now link it to illnesses including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Fear must not get into the way of enjoying a good quality of life.

Dentists identify several reasons why dental fear gets the best of us:

 A childhood traumatic experience in a dental office
 Fear of needles
 Gag reflex problems
 The sound and effects of drills
 Fear of pain
 Embarrassment about the current condition of one’s teeth
 The loss of control through enduring sedation or lying prone while a dentist hovers over you.

Whatever your challenge may be, know that some dentists are very good at handling fearful patients and have an arsenal of methods and treatments to reduce or eliminate pain and alleviate fear in the dentist’s chair. That goes for adults as well as children.

Dr. Shelly Shearer

Some dentists who treat fearful patients go out of their way to create a non-threatening environment. Modern dental offices now have soothing, home-like furniture, fireplaces, beautiful photos on the walls, water features, and a smiling, caring staff. Here are some tips to ensure that you select a dentist who is right for you.

1. Call the office, explain your particular fear and ask to speak to the dentist. If the dentist listens to your fears and can suggest options to calm you during treatment, that may be the professional for you. If you feel like that particular dentist is not a good fit for you, continue searching.

2. Ask if the dentist has a way for you to signal when to halt and then continue the procedure. Often it is a wave of the hand.

3. Check on various sedation methods used.
Are you interested in a relaxed state or near unconsciousness? Nowadays sedatives can be inhaled, taken orally or through an IV. Only you know your comfort level. The dentist should be qualified to provide IV sedation and up to speed on local anesthesia and administration of nitrous oxide, often referred to as “laughing gas.” Anxiety about being sedated seem to fall into two categories. Some people fear they will be too awake and aware of the pain. They worry their teeth and gums won’t be numb enough and they’ll feel pain. Others perceive they will lose control if numb, leading to an unfounded fear of suffocation, choking or inability to swallow. It’s important to realize that for top teeth, only an individual tooth will be numbed. For bottom teeth, sometimes your tongue or cheek may feel swollen when numbed, but they won’t be. You lose sensation in these areas, but not function.

Once you have selected the dentist who is right for you, there are several ways you can prepare for the visit:

1. Practice guided imagery. You may be able to get yourself in a relaxed state if you close your eyes in a peaceful location and imagine you are at your favorite spot. It may be a walk on the beach or a hike through the forest. Imagining these activities will bring comfort and relaxation during dental procedures and transform your mind from the chair to an exotic, enjoyable location. Tell each body muscle to relax as you enjoy your journey. As an added bonus, perhaps wearing headphones will either drown out noisy distractions or provide comforting music.

2. Consider bringing a trusted close friend or relative with you to the visit. Their calmness and lack of dental fear will envelop you in a calm state.

3. Proactively address any intense fear with a trip to a psychologist prior to the dental visit. A therapist can pinpoint the source of fears and introduce various techniques to conquer any trepidation. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is a type of talk therapy combined with behavior changes that desensitize patients to the dental drills, needles and equipment responsible for their fears. Through talk therapy, patients can work on effective coping strategies, substituting negative thoughts such as “the drill will hurt” with positive thoughts: “my smile is going to look sensational.” Psychologists are also trained to teach effective breathing techniques and muscle relaxation.

4. See if clutching an object or a stress ball can help. One dental office has an array of stuffed animals that patients of all ages are eager to hold tightly during a procedure.

If you have dental anxiety, it’s crucial to select a dentist who will listen and acknowledge your fears with real empathy. Then you can make 2019 your special year to get the dental work you have been putting off. This is the year for a renewed smile!

Dr. Shelley Shearer is a graduate of the University of Louisville Dental School and Founder of Shearer Family and Cosmetic Dentistry in Florence, the largest all-female dental practice in Northern Kentucky.

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