Fear the Dentist (Is it Safe?)

Why do so many people, from the smallest child to the most muscular, macho weightlifter fear the dentist? Dental treatment can make our patients feel and look better, and can help them to attain good health. Even though modern dentistry has progressed to the point where the methods and the modalities used can result in a painless experience, dental fear may still cause patients to avoid regular or even emergency dental care.

Unfortunately, there is still something about the dental experience, whether it be as obvious as the high-pitched whining sound and vibrations of the air-driven turbine hand-piece (drill), the scent and taste of dental medicaments and materials, the sights of the instruments, the thought or pinch of the needle and the funny feeling of lip and tongue numbness, or as complex as embarrassment over the condition of their teeth or the feelings of helplessness and loss of control, that can trigger a negative emotional response, fear, or even severe dental phobias.

All dentists can relate to those conversations at parties that include, “I love you, you’re a great guy. But, I hate dentists.” Or people who open their mouths at parties and show you their teeth. Every one of them has a dental horror story, and you “grin and bear it” while you respectfully listen to them all.

Unfortunately, adding to their own personal experiences and the experiences of friends and family are negative portrayals of dentists and negative images of dental treatment in the media and in art, especially in film. Historically, movies have not depicted the dentist or dental treatment in the most positive light. After all, what dentist has not been told about the graphic torture scene in the movie, “Marathon Man,” in which former SS dentist Szell, “the White Angel” of Auschwitz, played by Lawrence Olivier, drilled into the teeth of his restrained patient, Thomas “Babe” Levy, played by Dustin Hoffman, without anesthetic while repeating one of Hollywood’s most famous quotes, the phrase, “Is it safe?”

Today, “it is safe” for patients to go the dentist. Dentists play an important role in the cause and the resolution of dental fears and phobias. Fortunately, most of them are skilled and caring individuals who have educated themselves and their patients about the multitude of successful anxiety and pain-reducing methods available today. This can create positive, sensitive and gentle dental experiences. Today, it is the exception, not the rule, to fear the dentist.