Almost half of adults have moderate fears about going to the dentist, and 5 to 10 per cent have told researchers they avoid dental care as a result.
The obvious consequences are increased cavities, bad breath and periodontal disease, but secondary consequences are broader: Decayed or missing teeth have a negative effect on self-esteem and employability.
And since periodontal disease is associated with such conditions as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke, fear of dental care can even be life-threatening.
In the March issue of Monitor on Psychology, the magazine of the American Psychological Association, Rebecca Clay lays out this grim scenario in the context of describing psychologists who are trying to help people tackle that fear. Techniques include cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation therapy, medication, acupuncture, hypnosis, musical distraction and gradual exposure to certain elements of a procedure, such as injections.
But as Richard Heimberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, points out in Clay's article, few dental practices have psychologists on staff. So his clinic for adults with anxiety has developed a video-based "dental anxiety intervention".
To prepare a frightened person for a procedure such as getting a filling or undergoing a root canal, the dentist shows the patient three videos. In a trial of 151 patients with high dental anxiety or phobias, Heimberg's team found the intervention significantly reduced fears. A month later, some patients were so comfortable with dental care they no longer qualified as phobic.