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Strategies for Soothing Anxious Dental Patients

October 22, 2014

Dental school

If you have ever felt nervous at the dental office, rest assured that dental anxiety is not just the rehashing of silly childhood fears, or a make-believe condition. A survey by the American Association of Endodontists found that 80% of adult Americans genuinely fear the dentist. The truth is, nobody really enjoys having a mouthful of metal tools – and all of that poking and prodding can be very invasive. Elderly citizens are more likely to have dental fear, due to memories of previous procedures done when anaesthesia wasn’t as efficient and dental offices focused less on comfort. If you have ever completed an internship as part of a dental assistant program, you’ll have witnessed this anxiety up close, and probably took on the responsibility of calming a patient. While everyone reacts differently in stressful situations, there are a few common strategies used by dentists and dental assistants to help patients feel more at ease.


Most dental offices these days are equipped with a television so patients can watch movies or TV shows while awaiting or receiving treatment. Not only does this distract patients from their procedures, but it also gives the dental office a warmer, less intimidating atmosphere. Some dental offices might play music in the background, or even allow you to listen to your own music on earphones. “Dental spa” is a nickname for certain practices where patients are treated to complimentary spa-like services such as mini massages, or hand or foot treatments during the dental procedure.


One of the best ways to keep anxiety at bay is remove the mystery behind dental procedures. The “tell-show-do” technique can be used effectively for adults and children, explaining techniques and procedures before and while they happen, much as you were taught in dental assistant school. Show them the equipment you are using and explain what it will be used for. Breaking down your approach into steps helps reassure patients, letting them know exactly what they will experience next and why. Language is also very important when dealing with anxious patients. Informing patients that they may feel a bit of pain, rather than telling them they’ll feel nothing at all, is a practice that builds trust. A dentist and dental assistant should avoid using words like “shot”, “hurt” or “needle”, as these terms invoke nervousness and negativity.

Pharmacological Techniques

In cases where behavioural and psychological approaches have been unsuccessful, a patient may request to be sedated. Many types of sedation methods are taught in dental school, but the oldest method used by dentists is nitrous oxide – also known as laughing gas. This sedative is inhaled by the patient, and produces a conscious relaxation and disassociation. Other options include an oral sedative in the form of a pill, which produces similar results to laughing gas. In the case of surgery, or a very nervous patient, intravenous (IV) sedation may be administered, which keeps the patient awake but in a dream-like state.

What techniques do you know to calm a dental patient suffering from anxiety?



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