Odontophobia falls into the “other” category of specific phobia types within the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This phobia is characterized by an intense or unreasonable fear of dentists or receiving dental work. Exposure, or even thoughts of exposure to dentists or dental offices, generally causes an immediate anxiety reaction. This reaction may include heart racing, feelings of dread, shortness of breath, sweating, hyperventilating, and even panic attacks. People with odontophobia generally know that their fears are excessive, but will often go out of their way to avoid visiting the dentist. This avoidance, anxiety, and distress can lead to impairments in functioning, particularly in regards to their health. Many people with odontophobia go out of their way to avoid having to go to the dentist so they often do not get regular preventative care and may be at greater risk to develop cavities, gingivitis, periodontal disease, and other preventable dental conditions. People with a fear of dentists may wait to seek dental care only when they have a dental emergency which can be costly and will often necessitate more invasive and painful procedures, which serve to only enforce the fears of people with dental phobia. While most people do not enjoy going to dental appointments and may even have a fear of dentists, if their fears do not cause marked distress and do not impair their functioning they would not receive a clinical diagnosis of odontophobia.
While the majority of Americans experience some fear or anxiety about going to the dentist at some point in their lives, it is estimated that about 5% or more may experience odontophobia. A study in the Netherlands found that 3.7% of participants reported a fear of dentists and this fear was the most common specific phobia reported in the study. Research suggests that odontophobia is more common among women, younger individuals, and among those who have experienced a dental emergency in the past. People with dental phobia often focus their thoughts on the imagined pain and discomfort of dental care and generally are more fearful of more invasive dental procedures (e.g., dental surgery, root canals) rather than more routine procedures (e.g., regular dental cleaning). People with odontophobia may also be more likely than those without odontophobia to be diagnosed with other anxiety disorders.
Celebrities and famous people who reportedly have or had a fear of dentists include Kelly Osborne, Abraham Lincoln, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Robert De Niro.
Odontophobia can be treated with psychotherapeutic anxiety treatments for phobias, including systematic desensitization, relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and modeling techniques. The use of medications, such as anti-anxiety, sedative, and analgesic agents, may also be recommended by your dentist and may be given to you orally as a pill, as a gas (e.g., nitrous oxide), or intravenously. It can be very helpful for people to talk to their dentist or oral surgeon about their dental phobia prior to treatment as a dentist may be able to provide information that can help alleviate one’s fears and may be able to recommend appropriate therapeutic or pharmacological techniques. Those with odontophobia should carefully choose a dentist who is properly trained and who is sensitive and understanding of dental phobia to ensure the best possible dental care experience. If odontophobia is interfering with your life, consult a health professional to discuss possible treatment options.
For more information on phobias and fear of dentists:
WebMD article on dental phobia
Huffington Post article on fear of dentists
Mayo Clinic article on phobias