Nearly one-third of American adults avoid going to the dentist. Some people are embarrassed over the state of their oral health; some people are afraid of the cost they associate with dental work, and some others just do not want to take the time to go in for a checkup. Others suffer from dental anxiety or dental phobia, or a fear of the dentist. Dental phobia may not just be a psychological impediment to going to the dentist; it may also be a genetic trait according to researchers at West Virginia University.
In this first of its kind study, researchers in the WVU Department of Psychology have identified a possible connection that links DNA to dental phobia. Information for the study was collected through the National Institute of Health Center for Oral Health Resources in Appalachia and then reviewed at WVU.
The study suggests that if a patient’s parent has a fear of the dentist, they could genetically pass that trait on to the patient. Other researchers agree with the WVU study. Anxiety, fear, and fear of pain are traits that are passed from parent to offspring, just like hair color or eye color, according to researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles.
While fear of pain is not the same as fear of the dentist, the study suggests that they can be related, and inherited. This research is critical for dentists, dental professionals, and psychology professionals, and will help dentists make advancements in the way dental patients are treated in order to accommodate patients with dental phobia.
Learning to better treat patients with dental is a good thing according to Dr. James Erpenbach, DDS, a Knoxville, Tennessee, dentist. Erpenbach practices general dentistry and biomimetic dentistry and often meets with patients who have avoided the dentist out of fear and anxiety. "Dental phobia is very common among patients," he says. "One of the things I hear often is that a patient avoided seeking treatment because they were afraid of the potential for pain – like from the drill," he continues.
Fear of the drill is one thing that makes dentists like Erpenbach so popular. Biomimetic dentistry is a light touch dental approach that uses innovative methods of treatment. Instead of a drill, Erpenbach uses a particle stream to treat address the site of decay. A benefit to using this method is it is painless. Also by using this particle stream, the rest of the tooth remains intact. This is different from the traditional approach that uses the feared drill. "In traditional dentistry, if a patient has tooth decay or a cavity, the decay is drilled out, and the patient is left with a bigger hole, which is then filled in or covered," explains Erpenbach.
Avoiding the dentist has its consequences, says Erpenbach. "When patients skip regular check-ups, they are not getting preventative care to reduce risks of developing tooth decay or gum disease. As a result, they develop tooth decay and gum disease. If these conditions are not treated, things can get serious pretty quickly." Tooth decay and gum disease lead to cavities, gum and dental infections, conditions that could have a greater impact on a patient’s total health, causing heart and other cardiovascular problems, and even early onset dementia.
Other factors also contribute to a patient’s fear and avoidance of the dentist. Some patients cite a previous bad or painful experience, or may have sensory issues with the sounds and smells of the dental office. "If a patient has concerns or questions regarding their care, the best thing for them to do is set up a consultation appointment with their provider to discuss their fears or anxiety, and work with their dentist to establish a care plan that allows them to successfully and comfortably receive the treatment they need," suggests Erpenbach.