Overcoming Orthodontic Treatment Anxiety: Tips for Managing Fear and Discomfort

Avoiding orthodontic or dental work is usually related to some fear or stress about the dental setting itself or by some past traumatic dental event or injury to the head or neck. No matter what the cause, orthodontic treatment anxiety must be taken seriously. 

About one-third of people in the U.S. have a fear of dental treatment, with 12% having extreme anxiety or fear. And roughly 3% of adults in industrialized countries avoid going to the dentist at all. More women have dental anxiety while 3-5% of sufferers, both male and female, have an extreme phobia.

This article will differentiate between orthodontic anxiety and orthodontic phobia, present the signs, symptoms, and causes of orthodontic anxiety, and offer some helpful tips for managing anxiety about orthodontic treatment. 

The Difference Between Anxiety and Phobias

If you suffer from fear or stress when it’s time to visit your orthodontist, you need to understand exactly what you are experiencing. It is only then that you can go about managing your fear of orthodontic treatment and get help. So, is it anxiety, or is it a phobia?

Orthodontic anxiety is defined by The National Library of Medicine as a “…negative emotional state experienced by dental patients.” Equipment like needles, drills, or the orthodontic office itself can trigger a person’s anxiety. If you get very nervous before an appointment, you are experiencing anxiety.

Orthodontic phobias occur in patients who have severe dental anxiety that can even cross into irrational fears. For example, believing that orthodontic treatment will always be extremely painful. Phobias lead to the avoidance of orthodontists or any dental professionals regardless of the severity of the issues requiring attention.

Orthodontists are accustomed to patient fears, anxieties, and phobias. They can help patients work through these situations, which are often most prevalent during the first week or so, so that the necessary orthodontic work can be done without further traumatizing the patient.

Signs, Symptoms, and Causes Of Orthodontic Anxiety

Those who suffer from orthodontic anxiety or phobias may experience the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations or “racing” heart
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fainting
  • Sweating
  • Crying
  • Panic
  • Withdrawal
  • Humor
  • Aggression
  • Using excuses to miss appointments
  • Upset stomach
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Dizziness
Source: VeryWell Health

An obvious question is where these anxieties and phobias originate. What causes someone to have such reactions to dentists or orthodontists? 

Possible causes include:

Family History

Like many of our experiences, behaviors, and disorders, they run in families. If you have a parent or close family member who suffers from this anxiety, it is likely you may, too.

Past Negative Dental Experiences

Experiencing a painful or traumatic event going to a dentist or orthodontist as a child may transform into anxieties or phobias from that point on.

Past Experience with Other Traumas

Patients with a history of trauma, such as child abuse, sexual violence, or bullying, can lead to anxieties or phobias in many other situations.

Feeling Embarrassed or Helpless

Some people don’t like being so close to a stranger, may be embarrassed about their teeth or breath, are uncomfortable lying prone with their mouths open, or generally feel out of control.

Modeling Someone Else 

Someone who exhibits anxiety about a dentist or orthodontist may be simply modeling what they heard someone else say or do, especially if the patient admired or was close to the person they are modeling.

Now that you have more information about these anxieties and phobias, what are some tips for dealing with them?

Tips For Dental Anxiety

Consider your dentist and orthodontist members of your oral health team. Discuss your anxieties and phobias openly. As professionals, your dentist and orthodontist can help you manage your fears and make your treatment as stress-free as possible.

First, here are some psychological techniques to help you cope with your anxiety:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Guided imagery
  • Distraction with music or white noise
  • A weighted blanket
  • Use of a signal by you to indicate the orthodontist should stop
  • Use of cognitive behavioral therapy over time to diminish symptoms

A second level of attack may be the use of medication with one (or more) of the following:

Inhalation Sedation or “Happy Gas”

Nitrous oxide relaxes patients during dental treatment. You will be awake, you can talk to the orthodontist and respond to their direction when needed, but you will have little memory later of anything that happened. 

A small mask is placed over your nose and you breathe a mixture of nitrous oxide and oxygen. The gas works quickly and also wears off quickly when the orthodontist is finished. Most patients report that the sensation is pleasant.

Anxiety Relieving Medication (Oral Anxiolytic Tablets)

Medication can be considered if none of the psychological techniques help. These medications, such as temazepam, are one-dose, fast-acting sedatives. A low dose will make you feel relaxed and drowsy, but you won’t lose consciousness. A larger dose results in some grogginess, sometimes enough to fall asleep during the procedure.

Patients using anxiety-relieving medication will need someone to drive them to and from the orthodontic visit. 

Conscious Sedation

Another method for patients to achieve a relaxed mindset during orthodontic treatment is IV sedation, sometimes called “twilight” sedation, administered through a drip into a vein. This technique requires specialized training by the orthodontist. Check with your orthodontist to see if they offer this type of treatment. Patients may also have other medical conditions that prevent the use of IV sedation.

Patients under IV sedation are relaxed, able to respond to direction, and may fall asleep. It creates a state of short-term amnesia, and there are possible side effects, such as nausea. Someone must accompany the patient to the procedure and drive them home.

General Anaesthesia

Like any other medical treatment done in a hospital, this method of dealing with orthodontic anxiety or phobia requires more preparation as well as post-op treatment. It should be considered a last resort. Patients are under a general anesthetic and are fully asleep. The recovery time is longer and side effects are more common. Again, check with your orthodontist to see if this is an option as this does require an anesthesiologist.

Anxiety and Phobias Can Be Successfully Addressed

Fear and anxiety about dental and orthodontic work are common, ranging from mild stress to crippling fear and avoidance of any dental work. As you can see, there are many causes. 

Dealing with orthodontic treatment anxiety is very possible and the methods to do so range from simple psychological techniques to utilizing anesthesia. 

Our professionals here at White Plains Orthodontics have dealt with these anxieties and phobias many times and will be able to help you, too. We can help ease any worries about orthodontic treatment by offering effective treatment options in a calm and relaxing space, enabling you to achieve the beautiful smile you deserve with as little stress as possible.

Schedule an appointment today!