Treating Dental Anxiety

Did you know that dental anxiety or fear affects approximately 36% of the population? And unsurprisingly, as long as there have been dentists, people have been fearful of their methods.

This isn’t entirely unfounded especially when you consider the origins of dentistry. The red and white striped barber’s pole, for example, harks back to the days when barber-surgeons, the forerunners of dentists, used to hang out their blood-stained towels from their premises after a particularly successful day of bloodletting. Funnily enough, the practice of eradicating ‘bad blood’ was heavily prescribed to treat every ailment from smallpox and gout through to…yes you’ve guessed it…toothache.

Lauding it up!

During the Middle Ages, if you were wealthy enough, any fear of getting a tooth pulled may have been alleviated by Laudanum – aAn opium concentrate which your local barber-surgeon would give you. Dissolved in large measures of brandy it was guaranteed to make you feel out of this world!

For the rest of the population, however… let’s just say that they had no choice but to grin and bear it! Small wonder then that many toothache sufferers would put up with excruciating pain rather than visit their local barber-surgeon for dental treatment.

Imagine going to your barber for your dental needs!

No laughing matter – Or was it?

For the next 200 -300 years dentistry remained a gruesome business, the only thing that really changed was the frightening array of tools. However, in 1799 the inventor and chemist, Sir Humphrey Davy, began experimenting with nitrous oxide. He wanted to find out the effect it had on the human body. So, like all good pioneering physicians of his day, he tested it on himself and recorded the results.

Aside from flushing cheeks and giddiness, Davy also recorded feelings of intense pleasure or euphoria. One day after partaking, he noticed that a particularly bad case of toothache had all but disappeared. Sadly, because this wasn’t Davy’s main area of focus, it wasn’t recognized as the form of anesthetic that it is today. As such, it wasn’t until the mid-1850’s that dentistry acknowledged the potential of nitrous oxide, and it was only then (some 50 years later) that dentists regularly got their patients to inhale the gas before beginning treatment.

Technology, tools, and views combine.

For the next 100 years or so, dentistry developed at pace with exciting new innovations, ranging from the first porcelain jacket crowns through to the formulation of Novocain as an anesthetic, and of course, dental implants. However, during this time much of the focus was centered around the treatment itself and while techniques were being pioneered, it wasn’t doing much to quell the anxiety of nervous patients.  

Nowadays, dentistry is geared towards a patient-centered approach. Modern technology and better tools allow dental professionals to deliver (in many cases) pain-free results. This seismic change in focus towards gentle dentistry now allows many dentists to treat anxious or fearful patients using a variety of relaxation and sedation techniques, including nitrous oxide (laughing gas). At the same time, technology such as computer and laser-guided surgery makes even the most invasive techniques less intimidating, less painful and promotes a faster recovery.

However, while the prospect of sedation dentistry and pain-free dentistry has the ability to attract many new patients, dental fear or dental anxiety still remains problematic. This is despite the fact that modern dental offices can look more like treatment spas than dental clinics with soothing music, comforting décor, and smells of freshly brewed coffee and flowers permeating the air.

So what’s the future of treating dental anxiety look like?

If only we could gaze into a crystal ball and tell people that in the future nobody will fear a visit to the dentist. Maybe that might be the case sometime from now, but for the moment, all we can do is to speculate how it may pan out with the knowledge that we currently have.

Greater emphasis on what makes patients tick

Dental schools and colleges are already starting to work closely with psychologists in order to equip tomorrow’s dentists with the technical skills to better handle and treat nervous patients, so that in the future, and just like their barber-surgeon ancestors, they’ll have a number of skills they can call on to deal with all kinds of patients. Although thankfully…bloodletting is no longer one of them 🙂

Improved technology

The improved technology of needle-free injection systems may allow patients to get comfortably numb without even feeling a thing; and state-of-the-art intraoral cameras will allow dentists to take even clearer pictures than they do now, without patients having to open their mouths wider than they absolutely have to.

What about distraction techniques?

In years gone by, techniques may have involved taking a firm grip of the barber-surgeon’s assistant as the surgeon set to work on the unsuspecting victim. More recently, ceiling mounted TV’s and monitors, noise canceling headphones, and for the younger ones, books and games have all been used to distract nervous or anxious patients.

In the future however, dentists might be turning to Virtual Reality (VR) as a truly effective solution for nervous patients. Early tests have shown that patients who wore VR goggles picturing pleasant scenes, tended to remember their dental treatment in a positive way. As the technology improves, it’s possible that in the future, patients may be so fully immersed in a pleasant virtual reality world that they don’t even know they’ve experienced any treatment at all – A bit like The Matrix, only nicer 🙂   

Remote dentistry

Finally, let’s not forget the growing phenomenon of teledentistry. As the technology improves, patients will be able to enter into an enhanced live consultation via video-chat. This enables the dentist to build up a rapport and bond with the patient before seeing them. But it also means that patients may be able to seek advice without having to first set foot in a dental office.

As you can see dentistry is taking huge strides to help nervous or anxious patients and while the original focus was based on one treatment for all, nowadays, treatments can be tailored to match the needs of each individual patient with the same positive outcome. Do you think dental anxiety will become a thing of the past in the not too distant future? We’d love to know your thoughts.

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