Dental Fear


Dental fear is a normal emotional reaction to one or more specific threatening stimuli in the dental situation. 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. 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. 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.

Signs and symptoms

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. Dental anxiety typically starts in childhood. There is the potential for this to place strains on relationships and negatively impact on employment.


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. Often those with dental fear have previously had a painful dental experience, and often this relates to their first dental experience.

Individuals with high levels of dental fear and anxiety often attribute their anxiety to their experience of a traumatic past dental event. 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.

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

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


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. 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
  • Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI): a 16-item scale that focuses on apprehension about the symptoms of anxiety itself
  • Seattle System: consists of four diagnostic types in which such individuals are categorised according to the main source of their dear regarding dental treatment
    • 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.

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

Similarly, distraction techniques can also be utilised to divert the patient’s attention to allow them to avoid supposed negativity and be more comfortable. This can be achieved through television or movies, or a physical distraction such as focusing on another body part such as wiggling the toes or fingers.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Ideally done in a sitting position, this relaxation technique for certain muscle groups can be implemented in the waiting room. The major muscles groups include

  1. Feet, calves, thighs, and buttocks
  2. Hands, forearms, and biceps
  3. Chest, stomach, and lower back; and
  4. Head, face, throat, and shoulders

The steps according to Edmund Jacobson are as follows:

  1. Gently inhale, hold and exhale, being aware of the rise and fall of the chest.
  2. Slightly extend and stretch toes towards knees, hold briefly and then let go. Recognize the difference in sensation.
  3. Press heels of feet into the floor, hold and let go.
  4. Press knees together hold briefly before letting them drift apart. Be aware of the change.
  5. Squeeze buttocks together, hold before letting go.
  6. Pull in stomach muscles towards the spine, hold briefly before releasing. Feel the difference.
  7. Gently pull shoulders towards ears, enough to feel some tension in them, hold briefly before letting go.
  8. Press upper arms and elbows into sides of the body, hold and then let go. Recognize a difference in feeling.
  9. Gently clench hands, hold and let go.
  10. Extend head forward slightly, hold briefly before releasing the tension and allowing for the head to return to the resting position.
  11. Press the lips together before letting go until they are barely touching. Purse lips and let go, feeling the tension being let go.
  12. Push the tongue to the roof of the mouth, hold briefly before letting it drop loosely.

Behavioural techniques

A technique known as behavioral control involves the person giving a signal to the clinician when to stop the procedure. This could be simply raising a hand to let the clinician know, however, the signal that is chosen will be discussed prior. This technique provides the people with a sense of control over the appointment and as so, instills trust in the dentist.


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


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.


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


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

See also

  • Fear of medical procedures
  • List of phobias