Dental fear

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Dental fear
Other namesDental anxiety, dental phobia, odontophobia
Figure 1 Vicious cycle of dental fear.jpg
Cycle of dental fear

Dental fear is a normal emotional reaction to one or more specific threatening stimuli in the dental situation.[1][2] However, dental anxiety is indicative of a state of apprehension that something dreadful is going to happen in relation to dental treatment, and it is usually coupled with a sense of losing control.[1] Similarly, dental phobia denotes a severe type of dental anxiety, and is characterised by marked and persistent anxiety in relation to either clearly discernible situations or objects (e.g. drilling, local anaesthetic injections) or to the dental setting in general.[1] The term ‘dental fear and anxiety’ (DFA) is often used to refer to strong negative feelings associated with dental treatment among children, adolescents and adults, whether or not the criteria for a diagnosis of dental phobia are met. Dental phobia can include fear of dental procedures, dental environment or setting, fear of dental instruments or fear of the dentist as a person.[3]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

People with dental phobia often avoid the dentist and neglect oral health, which may lead to painful dental problems and ultimately force a visit to the dentist. The emergency nature of this appointment may serve to worsen the phobia. This phenomenon may also be called the cycle of dental fear.[3] Dental anxious typically starts in childhood.[4] There is the potential for this to place strains on relationships and negatively impact on employment.[5]


Research suggests that there is a complex set of factors that lead to the development and maintenance of significant dental anxiety or dental phobia. Some cases may relate to previous traumatic experiences or indirect experiences.[4] Often those with dental fear have previously had a painful dental experience, and often this relates to their first dental experience.[4]

Individuals with high levels of dental fear and anxiety often attribute their anxiety to their experience of a traumatic past dental event.[6] It has been suggested that when the traumatic dental episode occurs in childhood it has a lasting effect with regard to adult dental fear and anxiety. [7]

There is a significant relationship between child and parental dental fear. [8]

A genetic component in dental fear has been found, and the heritability has been shown to be higher in girls than boys.[9]


It is viewed as counterproductive to discuss dental fear with people because it is believed that this may exacerbate the pre-existing fear. Despite this common idea, it has been found that it is actually more beneficial in most cases to discuss dental fear with the patient. The first step in accommodating to patients with dental fear is to:

  • Identify the patient has fear. This can be done through observation (constant moving, talking loudly, sweating) or by asking the patient directly.
  • Then to create a conducive environment and open dialogue which can allow the patient to feel more comfortable in the dental setting.

Several methods have been developed to diagnose dental fear and anxiety. In addition to identifying the patients with dental fear, different categories of dental fear have been established.[3][10] These include:

  • Dental fear survey (DFS) which incapsulates 20 items in relation to various situations, feelings and reaction to dental work which is used to diagnose dental fear.
  • Modified child dental anxiety scale (MCDAS), used for children and it has 8 items with a voting system from 1-5 where 1 is not worried and 5 is very worried.
  • The index of dental anxiety and fear (IDAF-4C+), used for adults and it is separated into 8 item module and then a further 10 item module.
  • Corahs dental anxiety scale 1-4 questions and then 1-26 question. This scale has a ranking system and the second section with 26 questions has 1-4 options ranging from 'low' to 'don't know' which is used to assess dental concern. The first section with 1-4 questions has 5 Likert scale options which are worth 1-5 points with the possible amount of maximum points is 20. Then depending on the result you rate the dental anxiety. 9-12 being moderate 13-14 being high, and 15-20 being severe.
  • Spielberger State Trait Anxiety Index (STA): an instrument for measuring anxiety in adults. It differentiates between temporary condition of “state anxiety” and the more general and long-lasting quality of “trait anxiety”. It can also help differentiate between anxiety and depression[11]
  • Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI): a 16-item scale that focuses on apprehension about the symptoms of anxiety itself[12]
  • Seattle System: consists of four diagnostic types in which such individuals are categorised according to the main source of their dear regarding dental treatment[3]
    • Type 1: simple conditioned phobia—fear of dental procedures
    • Type 2: fear of catastrophe—anxiety about somatic reactions during dental treatment e.g. fainting, panic attack, heart attack
    • Type 3: Generalized anxiety—nervous person in general
    • Type 4: distrust of dentists—fear of the dentist


Dental fear varies across a continuum, from very mild fear to severe. Therefore, in a dental setting, it is also the case where the technique and management that works for one patient might not work for another. Some individuals may require a tailored management and treatment approach.[13]

The management of people with dental fear can be done using shorter term methods such as hypnosis and general anesthetic, or longer term methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy and the development of coping skills. Short term methods have been proven to be ineffective for long term treatment of the phobia, since many return to a pattern of treatment avoidance afterwards. Psychological approaches are more effective at maintaining regular dental care, but demand more knowledge from the dentist and motivation from the patient[3]


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) appears to decrease dental fear and improve the frequency people go to the dentist.[14] Other measures that may be useful include distraction, guided imagery, relaxation techniques, and music therapy.[5][15] Behavior techniques are believed to be sufficient for the majority of people with mild anxiety.[16] The quality of the evidence to support this, however, is low.[17]


General anaesthesia for dentistry can only be carried out in a hospital setting.

The use of general anaesthesia to reduce the pain and anxiety associated with dental treatment should be discouraged and general anaesthesia should be undertaken only when absolutely necessary.[13]


Hypnosis may be useful in certain people.[5] Hypnosis may improve a person's level of cooperation and decrease gagging.[18]


Individuals who are highly anxious about undergoing dental treatment comprise approximately one in six of the population.[5] Middle aged women appear to have higher rates of dental anxiety compared to men.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Seligman LD, Hovey JD, Chacon K, Ollendick TH (July 2017). "Dental anxiety: An understudied problem in youth". Clinical Psychology Review. 55: 25–40. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.04.004. PMID 28478271.
  2. ^ Anthonappa RP, Ashley PF, Bonetti DL, Lombardo G, Riley P (2017). "Non-pharmacological interventions for managing dental anxiety in children". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD012676.
  3. ^ a b c d e Moore R (1991), The Phenomenon of Dental Fear - Studies in Clinical Diagnosis, Measurement and Treatment, Fællestrykeriet, Aarhus University; Aarhus Denmark, doi:10.13140/rg.2.1.3647.5363/1
  4. ^ a b c Seligman LD, Hovey JD, Chacon K, Ollendick TH (July 2017). "Dental anxiety: An understudied problem in youth". Clinical Psychology Review. 55: 25–40. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.04.004. PMID 28478271.
  5. ^ a b c d e Armfield JM, Heaton LJ (December 2013). "Management of fear and anxiety in the dental clinic: a review". Australian Dental Journal. 58 (4): 390–407, quiz 531. doi:10.1111/adj.12118. PMID 24320894.
  6. ^ Locker D, Thomson WM, Poulton R (June 2001). "Psychological disorder, conditioning experiences, and the onset of dental anxiety in early adulthood". Journal of Dental Research. 80 (6): 1588–92. doi:10.1177/00220345010800062201. PMID 11499519.
  7. ^ Locker D, Liddell A, Dempster L, Shapiro D (March 1999). "Age of onset of dental anxiety". Journal of Dental Research. 78 (3): 790–6. doi:10.1177/00220345990780031201. PMID 10096455.
  8. ^ Themessl-Huber M, Freeman R, Humphris G, MacGillivray S, Terzi N (March 2010). "Empirical evidence of the relationship between parental and child dental fear: a structured review and meta-analysis". International Journal of Paediatric Dentistry. 20 (2): 83–101. doi:10.1111/j.1365-263X.2009.00998.x. PMID 20384823.
  9. ^ Ray J, Boman UW, Bodin L, Berggren U, Lichtenstein P, Broberg AG (March 2010). "Heritability of dental fear". Journal of Dental Research. 89 (3): 297–301. doi:10.1177/0022034509356918. PMID 20075372.
  10. ^ De Jongh A, Adair P, Meijerink-Anderson M (April 2005). "Clinical management of dental anxiety: what works for whom?". International Dental Journal. 55 (2): 73–80. doi:10.1111/j.1875-595X.2005.tb00037.x. PMID 15880961.
  11. ^ "The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI)". American Psychological Association. Retrieved 2019-02-19.
  12. ^ Gilbert C (2014). "Chapter 6.4 - Psychological assessment of breathing problems". In Chaitow L, Dinah Bradley D, Gilbert C (eds.). Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders (2nd ed.). Elsevier. pp. 129–136. doi:10.1016/b978-0-7020-4980-4.00011-3. ISBN 9780702049804.
  13. ^ a b Appukuttan DP (2016). "Strategies to manage patients with dental anxiety and dental phobia: literature review". Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry. 8: 35–50. doi:10.2147/CCIDE.S63626. PMC 4790493. PMID 27022303.
  14. ^ Newton T, Asimakopoulou K, Daly B, Scambler S, Scott S (September 2012). "The management of dental anxiety: time for a sense of proportion?". British Dental Journal. 213 (6): 271–4. doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2012.830. PMID 22996472.
  15. ^ "Standards for Conscious Sedation in The provision of dental care" (PDF). p. 11.
  16. ^ Department of Health. Salaried Primary Dental Care Services: Toolkit for Commissioners. p9. London: Department of Health, 2009
  17. ^ Wide Boman U, Carlsson V, Westin M, Hakeberg M (June 2013). "Psychological treatment of dental anxiety among adults: a systematic review". European Journal of Oral Sciences. 121 (3 Pt 2): 225–34. doi:10.1111/eos.12032. PMID 23659254.
  18. ^ Allison N (October 2015). "Hypnosis in modern dentistry: Challenging misconceptions". Faculty Dental Journal. 6 (4): 172–175. doi:10.1308/rcsfdj.2015.172.