How to Manage Patients with Dental Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the main reasons people avoid the dentist. Unfortunately, this often means putting off procedures and the initial problem getting worse. But there are some basic steps dentists and staff can take to help manage nervous patients.

Anxiety vs phobia

These are two very different things. Dental anxiety is common, where dental phobia is a lot less so. It’s actually got a name: trypanophobia. It’s a morbid fear of needles, pins, and other sharp objects and requires more care.

Signs of dental anxiety

Sometimes sensing a patient with anxiety is easy. They could even tell you they’re nervous. Not everyone is so obvious. Here are symptoms to look out for:

  • sweating
  • racing heartbeat
  • low blood pressure 
  • visible distress such as crying
  • showing signs of withdrawal
  • using humor or aggression to hide anxiety

Ways to manage dental anxiety 

Having an open discussion about how they are feeling is a great start. As you talk to the patient, see if you can spot any signs of anxiety. If you do, here are some coping techniques you can implement:

  • Tell them what and why you’re doing it calmly
  • Don’t tell them to relax, encourage deep breathing
  • Use a distraction, such as playing soothing music
  • Use guided imagery on a screen
  • Suggest muscle relaxation, ask them to tense their muscles as they breathe in, and relax as they breathe out
  • Rub or massage the area of injection
  • Use a needle-like SimpleCAP, that shields the needle from the patient so they can’t see it

If that’s not enough

Severe dental anxiety might require medical intervention such as relative analgesia, conscious sedation, or general anesthesia. 

Relative analgesia: Often called laughing gas, nitrous oxide can help people relax during a dental procedure. Patients may prefer this as it takes effect within a few minutes and wears off quickly. 

Conscious sedation: This type of Intravenous (IV) sedation involves a qualified health worker inserting a drip into a vein of the arm or hand so the patient can receive medication to calm their anxiety. Patients may drift into a light sleep but should be able to respond to you verbally.  There is also oral conscious sedation therapy where oral medications in combination with nitrous oxide are used. 

General anesthesia: This would have to be completed in a hospital or outpatient setting by the dentist and anesthetist, as opposed to a routine office visit. Patients are fully asleep and could experience a longer recovery time than the other two forms of sedation 

Be prepared

Since dental appointments are often stressful for the patient, knowing every interaction with them should come from a place of empathy. When it comes to dental anxiety management, try to train yourself to remain calm so patients can follow your lead.

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Updated on

February 17, 2021

Authored by:

Verena Solutions