At the Mashpee Wampanoag Health Service Unit in Massachusetts, I have seen several patients come to us with a history of traumatic dental experiences. In most cases, the trauma seems to stem from experiencing pain with a dental procedure.
It is estimated that 75 percent of American adults experience some degree of dental fear from mild to severe. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of Americans experience such severe levels of dental fear that they may avoid dental treatment at all costs. Many will only seek dental care when they have a dental emergency such as a toothache or abscess.
One patient comes to mind. When he first came to the dental clinic, his hands were trembling. He reported having PTSD from past traumatic dental experiences that included painful dental extractions that he had as a child and young man. He had not been to a dentist for many years and was encouraged by family members to see us. He had a tooth that he felt needed to be extracted. We explained to him that we do not perform extensive dental work without local anesthesia. Also, if he experienced pain, he could raise his hand, and we would stop, determine the cause of the pain and give more anesthesia if needed.
He returned several weeks later with an escort and again was apprehensive. After an exam and explanation of his treatment plan, I asked him if he would like to remove the tooth that had been bothering him. He agreed to complete the treatment that day but, admitted that he was terrified. After explaining our approach and reminding him that he can raise his hand at any time he experiences pain, he decided to proceed. Then, after achieving profound anesthesia, we successfully extracted the tooth. He was so comfortable that he was unaware when we had completed the procedure. He rather laughed, surprised that it did not hurt and that he had worked himself up for what turned out to an easy experience for him. That same patient, by the way, has since returned for more routine dental care without tremors in his hands and with a smile on his face. He has even shown up since, escorting another fearful tribal member to our clinic.
Incidences, as I had with this patient, are common. Most dental procedures are not painful, but we understand that just seeing the dentist can cause anxiety for some patients. If you are someone who feels anxious before you see the dentist, remember you're not alone. We hear from patients who are vocal about their fears and apprehensions. I encourage you to also talk to your dentist about your fears and concerns. A dentist and his or her team can help you overcome your fears and adjust the way they treat you. Sometimes a distraction like a stress ball can help calm you down before or during your appointment. And finally, if your fear is so intense, consider talking about it with your doctor or behavioral health provider.
Patients may have dental phobia or anxiety based on previous dental care visits. At the Mashpee Wampanoag Health Service Unit, we understand this is a common fear, and we work closely with these patients to ensure that they have as pleasant an experience as possible. Our staff is committed to working with each patient to ease their fears and make each appointment one where they feel safe and calm.