Dental anxiety management strategies for your patients

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As someone who works in the dental industry, you’re used to the whoosh of the saliva ejector, the whir of the dental drill, and the scritch scritch of the hand scaler. And so, when you see a hygienist yourself, you probably feel at ease.

But for a patient who may be less familiar with the everyday tools and procedures of a dental office, its sights, sounds, and smells can be anxiety-inducing. In fact, according to the Journal of Dental Hygiene, between 50 and 80% of U.S. adults experience some amount of anxiety when visiting the dentist. Dental fear can have an impact on oral health. As those with dental anxiety skip or never schedule appointments for dental treatment, they are more prone to developing gum disease, tooth decay, and other dental problems. 

Dental anxiety and dental phobia can affect anyone—from the patient who hasn’t seen a general dentist in 20 years to the child who tears up the moment they sit in the chair. But everyone deserves to feel calm and comfortable at the clinic so they can get the dental care they need—and as a dental professional, it’s your responsibility to relieve those fears. These five dental anxiety management strategies can help you keep your patients at ease.

#1 Communicate with your patients

First, you have to encourage open, honest, and empathetic conversations with your patients. While your years at the office may have blessed you with a “dental anxiety radar,” it won’t work 100% of the time. Only by speaking with your patients about their fears and the reasons behind them can you better understand what you can do to alleviate them.

Depending on the scenario, dentist-patient communication can be as structured or informal as you and your patient want it to be. For a more professional approach, consider conducting a short interview or handing out an anxiety questionnaire, such as:

  • Modified Dental Anxiety Scale (MDAS)
  • Corah’s Dental Anxiety Scale (CDAS)
  • Dental Fear Survey (DFS)

If you prefer a less formal approach, you can simply chat with your patient. If you can sense someone is on edge—or even if you can’t—ask them how they’re feeling. From there, you can come up with a sensible dental treatment plan together.

For example, if you discover through conversation that dental tools make your patient nervous, you can offer to walk them through the use of each one. Or, if they’d rather not see the tools at all, you can hide your mirror and probe before welcoming them into the room.

These are two vastly different solutions to the same problem—and the only way you’ll know which route to take is by communicating.

#2 Create a welcoming environment

If you want to know how to improve the patient experience, consider your dental office’s waiting room as a client’s first impression. With that in mind, it’s essential to make it as inviting as possible by removing or obscuring the typical causes of dental anxiety.

Ultimately, three aspects of the dental office can trigger anxiety in patients:

  • The sights – Everything from the scrubs to the sharp end of a scaler can induce dental phobia, also known as dentophobia.
  • The sounds – The noises from dental equipment and even other patients can be problematic for some people.
  • The smells – Scents are tied to emotions and memory. As such, the “medical” smells of a dental office can bring back negative experiences in some patients.

When giving your space a makeover, these are the categories to consider. To make your practice more visually appealing, opt for less sterile decor, allow plenty of natural light, and rethink your uniforms. To address the sound aspect, you can play soft music and ensure no sounds from the clinic area reach reception. For the smells, you could use a scent diffuser or an air freshener.

Of course, these tips extend beyond the waiting rooms. Your operatories and consultation room should be equally welcoming.

#3 Give patients a distraction

Another way to ease a patient’s mind is to distract them from those unnerving aspects of dentistry.

For some, a conversation about work, school, or a favorite hobby may be distracting enough. (Don’t forget to give them a moment to answer before putting the trays in.)

For others, you might need something more stimulating. Mounting a TV to the ceiling or a nearby wall can help shift a patient’s focus. Alternatively, a set of noise-canceling headphones with some light music (or the sound from the TV) can ease feelings of anxiety.

#4 Leverage digital dentistry

For the anxious patient, the less time they spend in the chair, the better. With digital dentistry, you can make each visit as efficient and stress-free as possible—for you and your patient.

When you embrace digital dentistry in your dental procedures, impressions that might have normally taken several minutes now take less than sixty seconds. Not only will your nervous patients be in and out sooner, but you’ll be able to see more patients in a day.

Advancements in new dental technology also make some of the less-than-pleasant parts of dental visits disappear. With an intraoral scanner, uncomfortable molds—and all the anxiety-inducing breathing difficulties that come with them—are a thing of the past. Plus, with CAD/CAM dentistry technology, appliances like dental crowns and dental implants fit right the first time. Without the need for adjustments, your patients may require fewer fearful trips to the dental office.

#5 Schedule early appointments

If a patient has a three o’clock appointment, they’ll likely spend the entire day stressing about their upcoming dental treatment. But if you can book them in for their dental checkup at 8 am, they can “get it over with” as soon as possible and enjoy the rest of their afternoon.

While this strategy may not work for all patients’ anxiety (or their schedules), it can often be the cherry on top of other solutions.

Manage dental anxiety with Dandy

Dental anxiety is a struggle for millions of Americans. Whether a patient’s dentophobia is based on a negative experience or a misconception about dentistry, it’s in your best interest to soothe those fears.

However, renovating your entire office to make it seem more like a hotel lobby can be a costly, time-consuming endeavor. While you shouldn’t overlook aesthetic improvements, there’s one step you can take immediately to help your patients: Embrace digital dentistry with Dandy.

As a state-of-the-art digital dental lab, we take the anxiety out of the equation for patients and dentists alike. Using our intraoral scanner, you can take accurate impressions in a fraction of the time, reducing chair time for nervous clients and all but eliminating the need for stressful adjustments.

Together, we can turn dental visits from anxiety-inducing to awe-inspiring. Get started with digital dentistry today to find out more.


Journal of Dental Hygiene. The Prevalence of Dental Anxiety in Dental Practice Settings

The Harvard Gazette. What the nose knows