Dental patient anxiety is, unfortunately, quite common. It can range from a mild nervousness to an outright terror that can be classified as a phobia. Some patients actually go out of their way to avoid even needed dental work due to their anxiety. Fortunately, there are some easy ways for dentists to help reduce dental patient anxiety.

Specific Fears

To help your patients combat their dental anxiety, you first need to understand what they are really afraid of. Dental anxiety typically breaks down into 5 specific fears, though many patients have multiple fears.

Pain: While it is true that modern dentistry is virtually painless, many patients have undergone a previous painful experience that makes them afraid of it happening again.

Numbness: Few if any patients actually like having their mouths numbed, but those with a genuine fear of numbness worry that they will not be able to breath or swallow. Patients who have had trouble breathing or experienced choking in the past, even if it was unrelated to dental work, are more likely to have this fear.

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“The Dentist”: Patients who have had negative experiences with uncaring dentists tend to categorize dentists in the same way as “the DMV” or “the IRS,” as a cold and unfeeling behemoth or even an active sadist.

Needles: Those who fear needles may be fine with the rest of the procedure, but terrified of the numbing injections.

Sensory Fears: From the sound of the drill to the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations of the average dental office, sensory triggers can be tough for patients to cope with.

Soothing Office Space

Helping your patients cope with their dental anxiety starts when they enter the office. Take a critical look at your reception and waiting areas. Is there a place for patients to speak privately with the receptionist? Is the lighting scheme calming? Does the furniture feel warm and welcoming or cold and sterile? Creating a soothing space can help patients relax from the outset.

Sensory Aids

Many patients can block out their anxieties with sensory aids and distractions. You might play soothing music in the treatment rooms and/or offer chairside movies. Warm blankets provide a physical barrier as well as temperature control. Heated face cloths help patients clean up after a procedure, helping them to decompress and relax before heading home.


Communication is absolutely essential. Every staff member that patients interact with should know the signs of dental anxiety and how to communicate with nervous patients. The receptionist might offer information on amenities. The hygienist might offer to get the patient a blanket or show her how to operate the remote control. The dentist should take a few minutes to sit with a nervous patient and find out what the fear is, and discuss how to help. For example, a patient might feel more comfortable if the chair is not all the way back, or if she can give a hand signal as a cue she needs a break.

Sedation Dentistry

Sedation dentistry can be a wonderful solution for nervous patients. From mild nitrous oxide to deep IV sedation, there are options for patients with every level of fear. Note that sedation dentistry should only be performed for the patient’s comfort and not to make the dentist’s job easier. Always be sure to offer rather than demand, and never try to talk someone into a sedation option that makes him uncomfortable.

Those with severe dental phobias may need additional help from a mental health professional before they are ready to see the dentist. For the majority of nervous patients, though, a few simple changes to your routine and a dedication to communication can help ease their anxiety.

Ready to Get Started?

If you are interested in learning how to take your dental practice to the next level, please contact Ascent Dental Solutions today at 413-224-2659 to learn how Dr. Coughlin can help.