If you’re afraid of going to the dentist, you should know that there are ways to quell dental anxiety and make your dental care experience a lot more tolerable.

Not many people really like going to the dentist. But for some people, the thought of going to the dentist can bring on such a fear that they avoid getting the dental care they need. In fact, nearly half of adults skipped the dentist in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What Is Dental Anxiety?

Some people’s fear of going to the dentist or getting dental procedures done is so severe that they lose sleep at night and worry excessively about what might happen at the dentist’s office, says Kimberly Harms, DDS, consumer advisor and spokesperson for the American Dental Association, and a dentist in private practice in Farmington, Minn.

Dental anxiety is common, with up to 15 percent of Americans avoiding seeing a dentist due to fear.

Dr. Harms says that dental anxiety is more common in older people, who may have experienced dental care when technologies were not as advanced as they are today.

“Children today have very few negative dental experiences, so we tend to see fewer problems among younger people,” she says. But the older you are, the more likely you are to have had a dental procedure when anesthesia was less effective, or not used, and when dentists focused less on patient comfort.

“Great strides have been made in focusing on making the patient comfortable,” says Harms.

How to Overcome Dental Anxiety

For people who have dental anxiety, the following strategies can help calm your fears:

Communicate with your dentist. Harms says that the best thing you can do to get over your dental anxiety is to talk to your dentist about it. “A lot of patients don’t feel comfortable talking with their dentists on a one-on-one level,” she says. But remember that your dentist is a patient, too. In fact, Harms herself has dental anxiety that stems from her childhood dentist not using anesthesia when filling cavities. “If you are anxious about something,” she says, “come right out and talk to the dentist about it.”

“Talk” with your hands. It can be difficult to speak when you have a mouth full of dental tools, so talk with your dentist before your procedure about how you will communicate should you have any discomfort or pain. Harms tells her patients to raise a hand if they feel any pain or sensation during a dental procedure. That way she can adjust the anesthesia and make sure the patient is comfortable.

Get distracted. In Harms’ office, patients are provided with video glasses so that they can watch movies during dental procedures. Watching television, listening to the radio, or just letting your mind wander can help ease some of your anxiety.

Consider medication. If you are having a dental procedure that requires anesthesia, rest assured that anesthesia is much more effective today than it was in the past. For some patients, a sedative or nitrous oxide can also help calm their nerves, says Harms.

Take a break if you need it. Harms says that some patients need to take breaks during dental procedures, when anxiety builds up or they start to feel claustrophobic. If you feel like you need a break, let your dentist know.

Ask about sedation dentistry. In some areas, there are dentists who practice sedation dentistry, which is where you get dental care under partial or full loss of consciousness. Harms says that most patients probably don’t need sedation dentistry, but for those whose dental anxiety is so severe that they refuse to get dental care any other way, it may be an option.

It could very well be that the unknown is what you fear, so don’t be afraid to ask questions before a procedure and make sure that your dentist does everything he or she can to make you feel comfortable during your visit. And getting regular dental care is vital to your oral health, so it’s well worth the effort.

If you’re scared of the dentist, please read more at EveryDayHealth.com or contact us to talk about your concerns and be seen by one of our gentle, understanding dentists.