Dentists Can Smell Your Fear — And That Could Hurt Your Teeth

A dental assistant plays music on the gramophone to distract a patient from the pain of having her tooth pulled by the dentist. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

About 10 percent of us have such severe fear of the dentist that we don't go. As a result, our fears become self-fulfilling — when we do finally get our butts in that reclining chair, the dentist has a lot more work to do. Even if you're not phobic though, you might have a general fear or dislike of getting work done on your teeth.

Despite your best efforts at seeming relaxed, you're not fooling anyone. It turns out that dentists can smell your fear. It may be subliminal, but they know. A recent study suggests that fear sends out a perceptible biochemical signature that can affect others. For the study, 24 volunteers each submitted two unwashed T-shirts: one had been worn during a stressful exam, the other during a relaxed lecture. The shirts were doused with a chemical to cover up any overt smells — so whatever odor was perceived wasn't anything obvious.

When the shirts were put on mannequins and student dentists went to work, they made more mistakes (like damaging teeth near the one they were working on) when working on the dummies wearing the stressed shirts.

Experienced dentists aren't the same as dental students, of course, and having dealt with thousands of patients over time likely inures a dentist against making mistakes. But for anyone who is already afraid of going to the dentist, it's concerning.

Knowledge is power

So, what is the best way to feel less fear — so you don't have to worry if your subconscious smells are giving you away?

"We have found that most patients' fears are coming from the unknown (lack of knowledge)," says Dr. Kerry White Brown, an orthodontist and the author of "A Lifetime of Sensational Smiles: Transforming Lives through Orthodontics."

As mentioned, about one in 10 people are truly fearful of the dentist. "Typically these are older patients who had bad experience when they were a child," says Dr. Steven Freeman, a dentist in St. Augustine, Florida. He points that that "dentistry has come a long way over the decades," so even if you have had a bad experience in the past, that doesn't mean that all future visits will be that bad.

Don't base your expectations of the dentist on what might have happened decades ago.

Working to reduce your fear of the dentist is worth it, not only for the health of your smile. Your fear can actually make it more likely you'll experience pain.

"The strongest predictor of pain during dental procedures was dental anxiety. Anxious patients were four times more likely to experience pain than non-anxious patients after controlling for other factors," Martin Tickle, professor of dental public health at Manchester University told the Guardian.

How to deal with a fear of dental work

Dentists are very aware that some people are nervous when they are sitting in the dental chair. So many have gone out of their way to make visits to their offices more relaxing. Some offices have been redesigned with more homey touches, while others provide movies and headphones so patients can focus on something more fun while they are undergoing dental work.

Freeman offers a "comfort menu" to patients. "This menu has options like blankets, neck pillows, headphones, Netflix, aromatherapy and other options," he says. "We typically find that a fearful patient has some type of bad association with a sound or smell at the dental office and if we can block or reduce that stimulus, the patient has a vastly improved experience.".

Think about what will comfort you before you head to the dentist's office. Having your favorite and familiar sounds can go a long way towards both relaxing you and blocking out weird noises. "I typically tell my patients to load up their favorite music on an iPod or their cellphone and bring it with them to their appointments along with a noise cancelling headphone and that will typically help the anxious patient," advises White Brown.

Communication is also key. Don't be afraid to tell your dentist what you need. If you feel that you can spit or just take a break when you need to, it will make you feel less nervous.

"I tell my patients that they are in total control. We can stop when they need a break and move forward when they are ready to do so. When patients feel empowered, they are less anxious," says White Brown.

There are also drugs. Anti-anxiety medication is used successfully by some, and nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas" is still available at many dentists' offices.

"This is a safe, common way to make someone feel much more relaxed about their surroundings. Typically you feel a bit like you are 'floating' or have had a glass or two of wine to drink. You are completely aware of what is happening, you just don't care as much," says Freeman.

How to become one of those chill-dentist-visit people

happy child in dentist chair
Younger patients often experience less fear at the dentist. (Photo: Evgeniy Kalinovskiy/Shutterstock)

The least nervous patients, according to White Brown, are those who have "done their research." Knowing what you are getting into, and what to expect, will demystify new sounds or words and ultimately make them less scary.

But it's not all on you.

"An experienced dentist knows how to calm their nervous patient," says Freeman. "The dentist can usually observe a patient's body movement and posture and can quickly relax the patient simply by talking with them and begin answering some of the questions they have to help ease their fears."

Also, go more often. Dental procedures are significantly less uncomfortable than they may have been in the past, and you can also look for dentists who specialize in nervous patients. Freeman says that younger patients tend to be less anxious since they are less likely to have had a painful experience. If you have had a bad time at the dentist in the past, certainly find a new provider, and fill him or her in on why you are feeling apprehensive. Go at regular intervals and you will re-learn that the dentist doesn't have to be frightening.

The truth is, if you see the dentist preventatively, "you will in fact have fewer problems, and those problems are what ultimately create the fear," says Freeman. "We tend to see the exact opposite in a fearful patient, they come in less often. I understand why that occurs, but really its the exact opposite thing they should be doing."