I have been practicing dental hygiene for over seven years now. And I cannot tell you how many times I have heard patients tell me how much they hate the dentist. However, let’s face it: going to the dentist can be unpleasant at times. Also, it doesn’t help that every single time a dental professional is depicted in a movie or television show, they are perceived as evil (sometimes in an over the top hilarious kind of way, but still!)
Dental anxiety is a very real thing and it does not just affect children. I have met people of all ages from all walks of life, male and female, who admit that they have some form of dental anxiety. It breaks my heart to know that there are that many people out there who avoid going to the dentist because of their anxiety, which then turns into a vicious cycle. This avoidance tends to lead to more oral health problems, which results in painful dental visits and even more avoidance.
Managing dental anxiety starts with the hygienist. If a patient feels comfortable enough coming in for their cleanings, they are breaking that vicious avoidance cycle.
Here are the 7 tips I follow to manage anxious patients:
1. Talk to the patient: I usually get a vibe that the patient is nervous or uncomfortable at the start of a visit whenever I ask “how are you today?” If the patient does tell me that they are anxious, I always ask what it is about going to the dentist that makes them feel that way. if I know what is bothering them, no matter what it is, I can work with them to make the visit as comfortable as possible.
2. Control: The fear of losing control is extremely common in anxious patients. I always emphasize that I am not in control of this appointment, they are. I always make sure I let the patient know everything I am planning to do during the appointment. I also say that if at any point they want me to stop, they have the power to ask me to do so.
3. Hand Signals: this is a continuation of tip #2. If at any point the patient wants me to stop, I simply say they can hold up their hand and I will stop whatever I am doing.
4. Offer Pain Management: Since fear of pain is all too common, it usually makes the patient feel better if I mention pain management suggestions. I offer up options and they can decide whether or not it is the right decision for them.
5. Distractions: It’s amazing what a little distracting can do. At the last dental office I worked at, we put nature scenes on the television and it created a soothing environment. Music helps too and it’s even better if the patient gets to choose what kind of music to listen to. At the start of every Virtudent visit, we ask patients whether or not they would like music or a podcast on to help keep them comfortable.
6. Scheduling: I have found that if an already anxious patient comes in during a high-stress time (ie: late morning rush, during rush hour), it doesn’t help with their anxiety in the least bit. Suggest he or she come in first thing in the morning, which is usually a quieter time of the day.
7. Be Flexible: Something else I discovered over the years is that not every anxious patient is exactly the same. What works for one person might be completely different for another person. Be flexible to trying different techniques.
These tips have helped me immensely as a hygienist and I use these tips daily as a hygienist with Virtudent. And to be honest, one of my favorite things about being a dental hygienist is helping patients overcome their dental anxiety and I smile to myself when I think of those instances. It means a lot to me when a patient begins to have positive associations with the dentist instead of negative ones.