Dentistry and Dental Phobia

Dental phobia is a condition that leaves people terrified of going to the dentist. Most of those who have it are perfectly aware that their fears are irrational, but are still unable to do anything about it. With the right help, like what is available at the Center for Dental Anesthesia in Alexandria, people with dental phobia can still get the care they need.

Fear of the dentist is common, but dental phobia is in a category all its own. It is more than feeling stressed while a cavity is filled, or your teeth are cleaned. It is an emotion so intense, people may avoid the dentist altogether.[1]

The terms “dental anxiety” and “dental phobia” are sometimes confused, or used interchangeably. Researchers who study the phenomenon say dental phobia is more than anxiety, and place it at the far end of a continuum of fear. In its most extreme form, people with dental phobia may only go to the dentist when they absolutely must – when their dental pain has become unbearable.

“Many times these fears are not taken very seriously by friends and family,” said Markus Schulte, a Swiss dentist and oral surgeon. “They are even made fun of.” Even some dentists, he said, are not sympathetic enough to those with dental phobia. Because of that, people with the condition may end up feeling isolated and helpless, and with ever-declining dental health.[2]

“If you have dental phobia,
we want you to know that
our first priority is making
you feel safe and comfortable
–Dr. Zeyad Mady, Center
for Dental Anesthesia

Why Does It Happen?
There is no single explanation for why some people develop dental phobia, yet many who share the condition have certain things in common. Most often, dental phobia is attributed to traumatic or painful dental experiences, usually early in life. Dr. Schulte says that about a third of his patients report having had some kind of negative experience with a dentist when they were young. It usually involved physical pain. Even worse, insensitive or brutal behavior by a dentist has contributed to their phobia.[3]

Other people trace their dental phobia to frightening stories they heard about dentists when they were growing up – how painful an extraction or root canal was, for example. Often, these scary stories came from their parents.[4]

Still others with dental phobia cannot identify any particular cause.

Hard to Forget
Among those who could name a cause for their dental phobia, nearly half said it was the result of pain. Most of us are able to remember particularly painful events, even years after they happened. “Our brains are wired for this, with a strong emotional component,” wrote Dr. Ben Bobrow, “which makes some pain literally ‘hard to forget.’” These memories, he says, can lead to avoidance behavior, such as dental phobia.[5]

Other reasons people have dental phobia include:

  • Fear of injections, like a local anesthetic
  • Fear that an injection won’t work
  • Fear of the side effects of anesthesia
  • A sense of helplessness

Not everyone with dental phobia avoids going to the dentist. But they still cope with a range of symptoms, such as:

  • Crying, or feeling sick just thinking about a dental appointment
  • Sleeplessness the night before an appointment
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Mounting tension while in a dentist’s waiting room
  • Intense unease when dental tools are put in their mouths
  • Fainting
  • The urge to gag or vomit

What to Do
First and foremost, dental phobia must be met with empathy on the part of the dentist. Advising a patient to find their backbone, or keep a stiff upper lip, simply will not work and is inappropriate.

New patients to any dental practice are usually asked to fill out a registration form. This is a standard procedure, and Dr. Schulte says it’s the perfect time to ask specific questions about whether the patient has any fear of dentists. If the patient answers yes, how strong is it, on a scale of one to ten?

Fortunately, more and more dental professionals are becoming aware that dental phobia is a very real condition that deserves the same understanding and respect that other conditions receive. This includes the team at the Center for Dental Anesthesia in Alexandria, which has always made dental phobia a priority.

“Studies show that up to 75% of Americans experience some level of dental-related fear,” says the CDA’s Dr. Zeyad Mady. “If you have dental phobia, we want you to know that our first priority is making you feel safe and comfortable here.”

At the Center for Dental Anesthesia, Dr. Mady begins with an initial consultation that takes place in a neutral environment. Using rooms that don’t contain any dental equipment removes emotional triggers – the sights, sounds, and smells we associate with dentistry. Patients tend to be more relaxed, and better able to describe their conditions and concerns, as well as learn of the options available to them. At these consultations, Dr. Mady gives each patient his undivided attention, and begins to build the trust needed to overcome dental phobia.

Our Top Priority
The available options include sedation dentistry. This is an umbrella term encompassing every type of sedation available in modern dentistry.

The lightest and most common type of sedation is nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. Administered as a mixture of nitrous and oxygen, it is safe and effective, and has been used in dentistry for more than a hundred years.

Nitrous oxide is extremely effective, but it may not be enough for some patients with dental phobia. The Center for Dental Anesthesia offers a full range of sedation options. Dr. Mady and the entire CDA staff have received advanced sedation training and are certified to administer the highest levels of dental anesthesia. This includes IV sedation, sometimes called “twilight dentistry,” and general anesthesia, which puts the patient completely under.

At the Center for Dental Anesthesia in Alexandria VA, we offer special needs dentistry for people with dental phobia. The safety, comfort, and dental health of each of our patients is always our top priority. It is possible to have quality dental care that is safe and pain-free, and we are committed to bringing that to each of our patients, regardless of their history. If you are coping with dental phobia, don’t put your dental health at risk. We urge you to call us to schedule a consultation.


[1]      “Why Are People Afraid of the Dentist?” by Laura Beaton, Ruth Freeman and Gerry Humprhis., p. 296.
See also “Dental Phobia: The Fear of Dentists,” by Dr. Markus Schulte, (cited hereafter as Schulte).

[2]      Schulte, p. 5 (“Impacts of dental phobia”).

[3]      Schulte, and “Prevalence Of Dental Phobia Among Patients At Dental Clinics In UAE,” by Syeda Sheema, Safa Khan, Zaid Muayad, Ali Thaier, Meera Obaid, Hossam A. Eid.

[4]      Schulte.

[5]      Ben Bobrow, MD, “Reducing Pain by Learning How to Not Fear Pain.”

Contact Center for Dental Anesthesia:


Location (Tap to open in Google Maps):

5284 Dawes Ave
Alexandria, Virginia