My Fear of Dentists and How I Manage It

A little browsing on the web tells me that I have dental fear, not dental anxiety or dental phobia, and that my fear is caused by external sources (the other option is ’caused by a succeptability to mental disorders.’) While I’m heartened to hear that I’m not automatically considered disturbed, I think most people who can’t relate to this fear will still consider me a bit wacky, if you will.

While the lucky who’ve never had a bad experience with a dentist will write me of as ‘soft’ I have a host of reasons to fear dentists, starting when I was 5. As a toddler, I’d fallen off some playground equipment and jammed my two front teeth back into my gums. They stayed there for several years until our dentist recommended that the baby teeth be pulled to prevent them from interfering with the formation and descent of my adult teeth.


On the appointed day, the dentist gave me a sedative, which made me hyper. He then injected the numbing agent into my gum just behind my upper lip. If you’ve ever had a shot there, you’ll know how bad that is – if you haven’t, I’ll simply relay that for all subsequent work on my front teeth I refuse numbing. How’s that for a softie? Sadly, the numbing agent, while mind-numbingly painful, didn’t work. That particular dentist either didn’t understand or didn’t care that I was fully aware and feeling everything, because he went ahead and dug out my baby teeth. The adult who was with me told me years later that my screams could be heard in the waiting room.

As I grew up I told each new dentist that I am difficult to numb. Those who dismissed this with a flick of their hand invariably failed to numb me. They sent me home full of lidocaine, numb from ear to nose with a humming heart – but with full sensation in my teeth. They shrug and say, “I can’t give you any more.” Worse, some don’t believe me and think that I am exagerating or wrongly expecting to feel no sensation at all. Those ones go ahead and do the work, despite my protests that I am not numb. The dentists who take me seriously about my problem with numbing usually don’t fail.

An endodontist who did two root canals for me very nearly received a marriage proposal, such was my blissfulness at his ability to completely deaden my mouth. As often as not, though, I felt it all. Consider the time I had two teeth prepped for caps without being numb. That was, truly, 8 hours of hell. If I’d had anything to admit or confess, I’d have done it. The dentist, relentless in her optimism, had given me as much numbing stuff as she could without endangering my health. She would shoot me, leave, come back and drill as long as I could stand it, then leave me to ‘relax.’ At the end of the day, she sent me home because she couldn’t give me any more medicine.

By the time I was in my early twenties, even a tooth cleaning involved white knuckles and a racing heart (and after, occasionally, some tears.) Strangely, I am not really averse to pain. I’m not afraid of needles, I donate blood, and within 48 hours after my appendectomy I was drug free and painting a house. But, like Pavlov’s dogs, I am conditioned. The very thought of a dentist working on me makes my heart race and my palms sweat as adrenaline races through me.

A few years ago, I needed some major work done on a tooth. Naturally, because she’d barely acknowledged my ‘difficult to numb’ speech, this dentist couldn’t numb me. She did come up with a new twist on this old theme, though. She told me that the reason she couldn’t get me numb was because I was scared. True as it might be that adrenaline counters lidocaine, she seemed to miss the point that I wouldn’t be scared if dentists could get me numb. Chicken, egg? Doesn’t matter, really. I don’t buy her theory entirely because even though I am always terrified, about half of the dentists numb me without trouble. I came back for a new appointment as she guaranteed she’d be able to get me numb. And she did. They numbed my gum, drilled a hole through my jaw to the root of the problem tooth, and injected the medicine directly. It worked, and the work got done.

I don’t know now why it took me so long to take control of this situation. It was only as I neared my thirties that I had my dental epiphany. While I don’t know that I’ll ever be completely relaxed at the dentist’s office, I made three small changes to manage my fear. One day, I realized that I didn’t have to do what the dentist said. If he couldn’t numb me, I could tell him to stop instead of waiting for him to admit defeat. I coach myself before I sit in the chair of torture, rehearsing what I will say if he fails to numb me after two or three shots. My experience tells me that if I’m not numb after three, I won’t be numb after 8. The second thing I do before I have work done is take valium, though I hate that I need to. The dentist who told me it was the fear which kept me from being numb was partly right. I know that if valium helps keep my adrenaline down, it will be easier to numb me. Lastly, I usually take a serious (prescription) painkiller just before I go. It can’t hurt, can it?

This blog post is courtesy of Mark, a famous dentist in Crewe who writes on dental topics, and manages blog for CDC.