Harvard Mental Health Letter

Managing dental phobia

It is best to combine several psychological strategies.

Surveys report that 13% to 24% of people are afraid of going to the dentist. In most cases, dental anxiety is unpleasant but does not interfere with health. People whose dental fear is severe, however, may so dread the thought of going to the dentist that they cancel appointments, delay seeking care, and sometimes wind up needing more invasive and painful procedures as a result — thereby meeting some of the criteria for specific phobia described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV).

In the DSM-IV, dental phobia is considered a type of specific phobia (the blood-injection-injury type). A large Dutch study using DSM-IV criteria to assess the prevalence of 11 specific phobias found that dental phobia was the most common (followed by phobias of heights and spiders). While it may be possible to avoid heights and spiders, dental problems such as toothaches or broken teeth necessitate a visit to the dentist.

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