Dental Fears - This Won't Hurt (or Will It?)

Although nobody loves a trip to the dentist, most of us go because we want to preserve our health as well as the luster of our pearly whites. However, the American Dental Association (ADA) estimates that 35 million adults have so much anxiety about dental visits that they worry, postpone or avoid seeing their dentist.

Studies conducted by faculty at the University of Washington Dental Fears Research clinic in Seattle indicate that the prevalance of dental fear throughout the world is about 20 percent. Peter Milgrom, DDS, director of the clinic, said that the level of dental fears peaks around middle age.

How do you know if you've crossed the line from just disliking the dentist or what the dentist is doing to dental fear?

Dr. Milgrom answered that: "The issue is whether a person can maintain their dental health, use a dentist if needed, without terrible foreboding or running away."

Dental Fears from History of Sexual or Physical Abuse

The most common dental fears relate to pain, fear of allergic reactions to local anesthetic or drilling. About two-thirds of dental fears come from direct experience, usually during childhood.

Sometimes dental fears are associated with other mental health conditions. "For example, patients with a history of sexual or physical abuse will often be afraid of being tipped backwards, losing control," said Milgrom.

There is evidence that fear of pain actually hurts. Researchers at Oxford University monitored the brain activity of 12 test subjects who felt a series of painless warm and painful hot sensations on their left hand. Each experience was signaled ahead of time by a colored light. The researchers reported in the June 18, 1999 issue of the journal Science that they discovered subjects' brain sites activated by the expectation of pain were distinct from, but located close to, those activated by the actual encounter with pain. As for Milgrom, he says "people who are afraid are not good estimators of pain. They tend to overestimate it."