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How Dental Clinics Can Manage Patient Fear

By Staff

How Dental Clinics Can Manage Patient Fear

Fear is a common problem in dental patients that can impact their care. In fact, about

one in every seven patients is so anxious that dental practitioners must take extra care.

Dental fears can cause patients to delay or even forgo necessary treatment.


Dentists, hygienists, and other dental staff can make a difference. When the dental team takes time to understand what dental anxiety is, what causes it, and how to help patients, then patients can get the care they deserve.

What is Dental Anxiety?

Dental anxiety is a fear of a dental procedure that outweighs the actual risks. Someone might be afraid of specific procedures at the dentist's office or something in particular. Also known as dental fear, this anxiety exists on a spectrum.


Some patients with dental anxiety may feel a racing heartbeat when in their dentist's chair but otherwise feel ok. Other patients may feel unable to get through a cleaning. Some even avoid dental work altogether. Severe cases are sometimes known as "dentophobia."


Some patients with dental anxiety are afraid of specific parts of the experience, including:


  • Anesthesia

  • Needles

  • Pain or discomfort

  • The dentist or hygienist


Unpleasant sensations can worsen these fears, such as loud noises, bright lights, and unique smells. But what makes people so afraid of dentists?

What Causes Dental Anxiety?

There's no singular cause for dental fear and anxiety. However, some experiences and factors can cause someone to be more likely to experience dental anxiety.


First and foremost, having a negative experience with dentistry can cause someone to fear all dentists. Patients might have had a failed treatment, extreme pain, or other traumatizing experience. Even if your practice wasn't responsible for that, the patient could be anxious that you'll cause the same stress.

Some patients are afraid to experience shame or judgment at a dental office. People have dental problems for all kinds of reasons. They may have missed years of cleanings due to anxiety, cost, or other issues. Some may have a genetic predisposition to dental problems, or they may be getting sober from an addiction that damaged their teeth.


All of these issues may cause the patient to feel ashamed of their smile. They worry that a dentist or hygienist will make them feel worse about themselves.


Finally, popular media and societal expectations can influence people's feelings about going to the dentist. Often, movies, shows, and more portray dental treatments as extremely painful.

Strategies for Reducing Dental Anxiety

Dentists, hygienists, and other staff can help patients cope with their dental anxiety. You can implement some of these strategies for every patient. You might use different coping mechanisms only for patients who show signs of anxiety, such as:


  • Shallow, quick breathing

  • Shaking

  • Excessive sweating

  • Wincing when touched

  • A worried expression


These strategies can put your patients at ease and lead to better care.

Show Empathy and Compassion

Perhaps the best thing that dental professionals can do for anxious patients is to show empathy. When you show your patients that you understand their fears, they may trust you to care for them. You can try phrases like:


  • "I know this might feel scary. I'm going to take good care of you."

  • "There's no need to feel embarrassed. I'm here to help, not judge."

  • "Please let me know if anything feels overwhelming. I'm here to help."


Empathetic communication can be essential for patients who feel ashamed or embarrassed about their oral health.

Communicate Everything

Many patients feel better when they know what to expect. You can ease their fear by telling your patient what you will do before you do it. Some practitioners use the "tell, show, do" method:


  1. Tell the patient what you will do. You might also include what they might feel and why you are doing it.

  2. Show the patient what instruments you'll use or anything else that might help them understand what to expect.

  3. Do what you told the patient you would do. If you have to change the plan, let them know.


Depending on the patient, you can use this technique for every small detail or to go over the entire plan all at once.

Give Them Control

When possible, give your worried patient choices. This can help the patient gain some feelings of control over the situation, which can reduce anxiety. Some ways you can provide control include:


  • Giving the patient a way to tell you that they are in pain

  • Letting the patient tell you when they are ready to begin

  • Giving them hand signals for "stop" and "go ahead."


Even these small adjustments can go a long way toward calming the person in your care.

Breathing Techniques

Lead the patient through calming breathing exercises. You can even participate as well. There are many breathing techniques that can work. For example, you can try box breathing. Have the patient breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four, and then hold again for four. Try a few rounds of this and see how you both feel.

Create a Calming Environment

Your office environment and procedures can change the patient experience. Think through the patient's full experience from the moment they schedule through check-out. You can likely find ways to create a peaceful environment at every step.


Here are just a few ways to create a calming dental office:


  • Ensure office staff are kind and empathetic

  • Play calming music in the lobby

  • Consider ways to make the practice smell good

  • Install televisions that can distract patients from their fears

  • Have comfortable seating in the waiting room

  • Use natural lighting where possible


Each of these adjustments can help your patients feel better about visiting your office. Then, they can be more likely to attend their cleanings and get additional care. They may even tell their friends and family how much better your practice is than previous experiences. How will you help your patients feel calm in your practice? You can take steps today to improve dentistry for everyone.

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