If the idea of going to the dentist sparks a panic attack, you may have an inherited case of dentophobia.
“Dentophobia” is the official term for people who are so frightened of the dentist that they will avoid getting any sort of dental treatment, even when they are in severe pain. About 20%-25% of the population has what medical researchers describe as “dental anxiety,” but only 5% are so afraid of dentists that their fear reaches phobic levels.
Deep fear of going to the dentist is often attributed to previous bad experiences getting dental care, fear of needles, or anxiety attacks triggered by feeling out of control. But now, new research from West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh suggests that dental fear – and the fear of pain – may be a genetic inheritance.
The researchers surveyed 1,370 subjects between the ages of 11 and 74 years to gauge their level of dental fear and fear of pain. The survey indicated that dental fear was 30% heritable and fear of pain was 34% heritable.
The researchers also found a significant genetic correlation between dental fear and fear of pain. But they also noted that a significant number of people who are afraid of going to the dentist don’t cite pain as the primary reason for that fear. Claustrophobia, needles, embarrassment about poor oral health, and concern about getting a difficult diagnosis were all mentioned as causes of dental fear.
In an interview with Dentistry Today, Cameron L. Randall, lead author of the study, “Toward a Genetic Understanding of Dental Fear: Evidence of Heritability,” said that is still unclear exactly how genes influence dental fear.
“For example, there may be genetically determined differences in pain sensitivity that make a patient more or less likely to have negative dental treatment experiences that would promote the development of dental phobia. Relatedly, there may be genetically determined differences in the rate at which a patient metabolizes local anesthesia such that some individuals experience less numbness and thus a higher likelihood of experiencing pain, making them more likely to have negative dental experiences that could cause dental fear. And, there may be genetically determined differences in anxiety sensitivity or an “overactive” fight-or-flight response that make a patient more or less likely to develop problems with fear/anxiety generally.”
Being exposed to a parent or other trusted adults who are very fearful about getting dental care unsurprisingly also influences people’s dentist later in life.
Managing Dental Fear
Better understanding of dental phobia helps health professionals come up with strategies to help people combat those fears.
This is especially important when fear keeps people from getting dental care, as the longer a person delays getting treatment the more their oral health will deteriorate, sparking yet more fear and embarrassment about going to the dentist.
fear is an obstacle because it results in avoidance of dental treatment. That avoidance can range in severity from the delaying of a dental appointment to complete avoidance of dental treatment for many, many years. Of course, with avoidance of dental treatment comes poorer oral health.
People can combat dental anxiety – and even phobias – with the help of a dentist who specializes in working with fearful patients. Other techniques that work – depending on the level of anxiety – include deep breathing, distracting yourself with music, videos or games, taking a gradual pace with your dental work, and perhaps getting medication to ease anxiety. Especially fearful patients may wish to explore dental sedation.
Another thing that works is being especially conscientious about taking care of your oral health, in order to reduce the chances of needing complex dental treatment. Regular checkups and cleanings really do help to keep dental disease in check.
If you’ve been avoiding seeing the dentist or dental hygienist due to costs as well as fear, consider dental savings plans.
Dental savings plans are an affordable alternative to dental insurance, providing plan members with discounts on most dental services. As an example, the majority of plans you’ll find on dentalplans.com offer savings of 10%-60% at the dentist.
Dental savings plan members pay a low annual membership fee for access to an extensive network of participating dentists and dental specialists that provide discounts on dental care at the time of service. Since they are not dental insurance, dental savings plans do not have co-payments, deductibles, paperwork hassles or annual spending limits.