How to Reduce Dental Fears: 7 Ways to Increase Patient Comfort, Attendance, and Retention

Patient apprehensive at the dentist

How many of your canceled appointments are due to dental fears? And how many patients never schedule their next appointment because they’re anxious about the treatment they need?

Chances are, more than you think!

Even though 73% of participants in a new study reported that their oral health affected their quality of life, dental anxiety runs rampant. Symptoms of dental fears include extreme blood pressure highs and lows. Heart palpitations, panic attacks, sweating, crying, dizziness, fainting, and aggressive mood swings can also occur. 

Patients who had bad dental experiences may avoid dental clinics. They may also procrastinate on their dental health due to dental phobias. If these dental fears are extreme enough, they may not address oral health problems, resulting in poor oral health and expensive dental health issues down the road. 

All individuals deserve to have a positive dental experience with caring dental professionals. We recommend understanding dental fears so you and your dental team can ease intense and even irrational fears that your patients may have. Dental professionals we’ve worked with have seen great success with these tips.

Why Patients Experience Dental Fear

Approximately 20 to 36% of the population experiences dental fear. And while this is a common phenomenon, it doesn’t have to keep your patients from getting the care they need. Lowering your patient’s stress and anxiety levels can improve patient care, build your reputation as a top dentist, and lead to fewer canceled appointments. 

Common reasons for dental phobias include a fear of:

  • Just being in a dentist’s chair
  • An unfamiliar dental office (contributing to new patients’ dental anxiety and children’s dental anxiety)
  • Acute dental pain
  • Needles and injections
  • Anesthesia/sedation
  • Side effects
  • Root canals
  • Dental drills
  • Tooth loss
  • Dental extractions/removals and implants
  • Complex and costly dental procedures (financial implications)
  • The healing and recovery process

Patients with missing teeth, gum disease, or oral diseases may feel ashamed about their dental health. This shame worsens their fears. Shame can be particularly intense for individuals who struggle with flossing and brushing their teeth. In these dental situations, fearful patients need non-judgemental reassurance that they deserve compassionate care. 

4 Tips for Dentists, Practice Owners, and DSOs to Reducing Patient Dental Fears

1. Make Distractions Easily Accessible to Patients

Before treating nervous patients, investigate which comfort measures would be most helpful. A TV mounted in your treatment room can provide an easy distraction. Ask your patients what they would prefer to watch. Patients might also enjoy music or appreciate you chatting with them while receiving care. 

Patients with sensory triggers — such as the feeling of metal scraping their teeth, the sensation and sound of drilling, and even the smells of a dental office — may find that routine visits quickly turn into stressful dental treatments. Offer noise-canceling headphones and consider a projector to produce a gentle light show on the ceiling. 

2. Invest in Sedation Options

Individuals with severe dental anxiety or dental phobias may appreciate the option of sedation dentistry. Some anxious patients may want minimal sedation through a noninvasive technique such as nitrous oxide sedation. Others may prefer general anesthesia for more intense procedures. Training your staff to offer various sedation options will keep your care flexible. 

3. Offer Your Staff Continuous Training 

Invest in continuing education for your staff to become known as a dental practice that specializes in treating individuals with dental phobias. Taking courses and attending conferences designed for working with patients who have dental fears can strengthen your staff. It can also boost your confidence in managing anxiety within your office. 

4. Prioritize Clear Communication

Patients should always understand their dental treatment, whether preventative or complex. They should also know what treatment options are available during a visit. Additionally, they should be aware of their future treatment plan. Dentists should aim to understand how patients feel about their care and what support they need to be comfortable with their treatment. A tool like the Modified Dental Anxiety Scale can help dentists assess a patient’s anxiety. 

3 Things to Say to Your Patients to Reduce Dental Fears 

“Bring a Friend/Family Member!”

Patients should be permitted to bring a friend or family member to their appointments. Having someone familiar in the exam room can help anxious patients feel safer and more relaxed. Even if the patient can’t talk with their person during their exam, adding this person to an otherwise unfamiliar environment is a comfort. 

“Please Ask Questions!”

Encourage your patients to ask questions during their appointments. Return their questions with respect, warmth, and eager answers. Remember, it’s always better to say, “Let me find out for you,” than, “I don’t know,” as it shows you’re on the patient’s side and will find the information they need. Opening the lines of communication and checking in during appointments will create natural breaks in the treatment process, which can also put your patient at ease. 

“Let’s Talk About Additional Methods of Support.”

If you find a patient’s fears too debilitating for your staff to handle with typical comfort measures, it could be time for your patient to call on support outside of your office. 

Many patients with dental fears and more extreme dental phobias find progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques to be helpful. A meditation teacher or yoga instructor can be a good resource for learning these.

In addition to relaxation support, encourage your patient to seek mental health care. Phobias, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety disorder may require professional help. Dental care can trigger these conditions that would benefit from talk therapy. A therapist offering emotional support should be able to determine what pace the patient can safely move at and if exposure therapy could be suitable for the patient. Patients may benefit from ongoing prescription medication in some cases. They may also benefit from as-needed prescription medication. This is in addition to talk therapy and other psychological techniques. 

Outsourcing this portion of patient care is not a failure on your part. The job of a dentist and their team is to help dental patients feel calm and comfortable, not to attempt therapy in the dental chair. 

No matter the extent of an individual’s fears, regular visits remain the goal. With a healthy smile comes better overall health and, over time, better dental experiences. A team of dental professionals who know how to handle dental fears and phobias is essential to a thriving practice. Our team can help attract, recruit, and retain top dental talent while expanding your practice through strategic marketing and growth. Contact us today to get started!


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