Being afraid of the dentist means different things to different people. Maybe it's the thought that treatment will hurt, or that the sounds and smells bring back memories of bad experiences as a child.
The good news is that more and more dentists understand their patients' fears. With a combination of kindness and gentleness they can do a lot to make dental treatment stress free.
Karen Coates, a dental adviser at the British Dental Health Foundation, says the organisation's dental helpline receives many calls about fear and phobia.
Karen says: "People who are scared of the dentist often call us for help because they're at the end of their tether. Their teeth don't look nice any more or they're in a lot of pain with toothache, and they want to make the first step to seeing a dentist and getting their teeth sorted out.
"Some people have such bad dental phobia that they haven't seen a dentist for years. It's common for us to hear from someone in their twenties or thirties or even older who hasn't been to the dentist since childhood. Recently, a 16-year-old girl whose mother has a dental phobia called the helpline. The mother had never taken the daughter to the dentist – and now the girl desperately wanted to have a dental check-up."
If you haven't seen a dentist for several years because of fear or anxiety, be reassured that you should find the experience more bearable nowadays.
"Most people who are scared of the dentist have bad memories from childhood of the smells and sounds of the surgery," says Karen. "Modern dental surgeries are much friendlier environments, with flowers in the waiting room, art on the walls, a pleasant reception area and polite staff.
"It's altogether a gentler experience. Of course, you'll still have the smells and sounds of the dental surgery but these are less noticeable than they used to be with instruments hidden from sight and background music playing. Even drills aren't as noisy as they used to be," she adds.
Advances in technology have also improved dentistry. Treatment can now be completely painless. The dental wand (a computerised injection system that looks like a pen and delivers the anaesthetic very slowly so it is painless) is great for anyone with a needle phobia. A numbing gel can also be used to numb your gums before an injection so you don't feel the needle.
8 tips to ease dental fear
If you're anxious about seeing the dentist, here are Karen's tips to ease the fear:
- Find an understanding dentist. Ask friends and family if they can recommend one or look for someone who advertises themselves as an expert with anxious patients. Search for your local dentists here.
- Once you've found someone you think may be suitable, visit the surgery to have a look around, meet the receptionist and dentist and see the environment. Tell the dentist that you're anxious so they know beforehand.
- Pick an appointment time early in the morning so you have less time to dwell on it.
- The first appointment will simply be a check-up so don't worry that you'll be launched into having a filling, the drill or a needle. See this first visit as your chance to get to know the dentist.
- Take a friend with you to your appointment. The dentist won't mind if they accompany you throughout the check-up or treatment.
- Agree a sign with the dentist to signal that you need a break and want them to stop. It can be as simple as pointing your finger, and will help you feel more in control.
- If you think it will help, start gradually with a clean and polish then work up to more extensive treatment once you've built up trust and rapport with your dentist.
- Take a personal stereo with you to listen to music during your visit. It will help you relax.
NHS sedation clinics
If you're extremely nervous, ask your dentist to refer you to an NHS sedation clinic. These clinics are specifically for nervous dental patients.
Some people find simple inhalation sedation very helpful to relax them for dental treatment. This is a bit like gas and air given during childbirth, but instead of being delivered through a mask it comes through a nosepiece.
If you're extremely nervous you may prefer intravenous sedation (through an injection into your hand or arm) during treatment. The drugs won't send you to sleep – you'll be awake and able to talk to the dentist – but they'll calm and relax you so deeply you probably won't remember much of what happened.