A nightmare no more

When was your last dental exam? For many people, regular dental check-ups are not high on their list of priorities. And the reason usually isn’t a lack of money or insurance; nor is it that they forgot to make an appointment. The reason is fear, says Dr. Michael Krochak, founder and director of the Dental Phobia Treatment Center of New York and an assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Some people are afraid of the unknown. Others are frightened by stories of negative dental experiences from family and friends. Still others associate the dental exam with a feeling of helplessness and a loss of control.

Office visits were “a nightmare”

Unhappily, the longer a patient waits to seek treatment, the more difficult it becomes. Reagan Fletcher, 50, an archivist for a large Broadway theater owner and producer in New York, did not see a dentist for 14 years. At that point, he says, “It became a vicious circle. The longer I waited, the more apprehensive I got. I also didn’t want someone scolding me for not getting regular exams.” Fletcher’s dental anxiety began in childhood. The family dentist, he says, was rough and cranky with children. “He got impatient if you weren’t sitting in the chair just right.”

Then, at age 10, Fletcher fell off his bike and broke two front teeth. Suddenly, “the person I feared most was someone I had to see every week.” The trauma of those visits remained

with him for years, he says. When he left home for college, he also left behind the agony of seeing the dentist.

It’s about more than teeth

As might be expected, Franzino, Amaral and Fletcher had to address a number of problems when they finally did seek dental treatment. They had inflamed gums, lots of cavities and old restorations that needed repair. More alarming, however, are recent studies that link gum

disease to a host of other more serious medical problems including diabetes, heart disease and premature births. “You just can’t afford to say, ‘It’s only my teeth,” says King. “If you have an infection in your mouth, it can compromise your entire immune system.”

High-tech advances improve comfort

Luckily, new technology has made comfortable dentistry a reality, says Dr. Michael Goldman, a dentist in Chevy Chase, MD, who specialises in treating anxious and phobic patients.

“Advances in technology mean advances in patient care.” At the forefront of these advances are computer-controlled anesthesia delivery systems. The new computerised systems constantly adjust both pressure and volume so that there is little or no discomfort. Moreover, the computer provides a flow of anesthetic directly ahead of the needle, which numbs the insertion site and provides an anesthesia pathway, so “patients hardly feel the needle at all.”

Laser drills may soon play a part in the dental office as well. These drills prepare cavities for fillings and may produce less pain than conventional mechanical drills.

Tips for choosing the right dentist

During an emergency when there’s no time to interview the dentist or to check out the practice, says Goldman. “Start developing a relationship with a dent-ist before there’s an emergency.” Talk with the person who answers the phone. “If the person answering the phone isn’t friendly, chances are the dentist won’t be either. The doctor sets the tone for the entire office,” says Goldman. Ask for a consultation appointment. This appointment gives you an opportunity to gather information and talk about treatment, says Krochak. “You should feel completely comfortable with the person who will be treating you.” Book your appointment for a time of day when you know you don’t have to be somewhere else shortly afterward, says Krochak. “That will only add to your anxiety.” Communicate with your dentist. Participating in decisions about your treatment will give you a feeling of control, says Krochak. “Anxiety often comes from not knowing what’s about to happen. When you know what the dentist is going to do, you won’t be taken by surprise.”

(Fran Worrall is a freelancer from Atlanta who specialises in Health and wellness)