Can’t coax your man into the dentist’s chair? A fear of dental procedures is common: About three in four adults report at least some anxiety, from feeling a little afraid to being absolutely terrified, says Lisa Heaton, a clinical psychologist in the Dental Fears Research Clinic at the University of Washington in Seattle.
While most studies report women are more anxious than men about dental visits, those findings may reflect that women are more comfortable admitting their fears, says Heaton. When dentists were surveyed by the Massachusetts Dental Society, 43 percent said men were more anxious, compared to 18 percent who thought women were more fearful. A survey by the American Dental Association also found that women are more likely to visit a dentist and take better care of their teeth. (No Canadian stats are available.)
Fear of pain or injections, the sound of the drill and a dislike of lying flat in a dentist’s chair are common causes of dental anxiety. ‘The lack of control may be a bigger issue for men because in many cultures, men are supposed to be in control and never show emotion,’ says Heaton. Rather than admitting their fear, men will often say, ‘I hate the dentist,’ and not go. ‘But after avoiding going for several years, there are usually more cavities to fill and more in-depth cleaning needed, which reinforces the fear, so the cycle repeats itself,’ she explains.
And then there are the bigger health risks. ‘Oral and general health are closely linked,’ says Dr. Don Friedlander, president of the Canadian Dental Association and a dentist in private practice in Ottawa. It’s well-known that neglecting your teeth can lead to serious infection, diabetes, heart disease and even death. It can also hurt your family’s finances: It may cost from $100 to $300 to fill a cavity but if the problem is neglected and requires a root canal, the cost jumps to $600 to $1,200. A crown to restore the tooth adds about $1,000. So if your partner is avoiding the dentist, share these three strategies to help him overcome it.
Ask for help It’s important for him to identify what he fears about dental visits, such as the sound of the drill, and to discuss it with the dentist. ‘Many people don’t know they can ask for something to be more comfortable,’ says Heaton. Dentists can provide mild or moderate sedation for fearful patients, such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas) or oral medication, on top of topical anesthetics. Other coping strategies include wearing a personal music player to drown out the whine of the drill, or establishing a hand signal for a break.
Talk it through If your guy’s father had his teeth drilled without sedation in the 1950s and he’s been hearing that story his whole life, it could be the basis for his fears. ‘Phobias develop not just from our own bad experiences but also from hearing about other people’s,’ says Dr. Mark Watling, an assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Western Ontario and author of Overcoming Medical Phobias.
Take small steps Suggest your partner schedule a visit to just sit in the dentist’s chair and get comfortable, says Watling. Then he can book a second trip for teeth cleaning only, and work up to something major, if needed. Watling’s bottom line: ‘Dental hygiene is so important that whatever will get him to go to the dentist’even if it’s a general anesthetic’is better than avoiding it. That will just make the fear and the potential for serious health problems worse.’
This article was originally titled "Does he fear the dentist?" in the January/February 2010 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.