Fear of the dentist

One in four of us dreads a visit to the dentist, but there are ways to overcome your fear.

Being afraid of the dentist means different things to different people. Maybe it's the thought that treatment will hurt, or that the sounds and smells bring back memories of bad experiences as a child.

The good news is that more and more dentists understand their patients’ fears. With a combination of kindness and gentleness they can do a lot to make dental treatment stress free.

Karen Coates, a dental adviser at the British Dental Health Foundation, says the organisation’s dental helpline receives many calls about fear and phobia. "People who are scared of the dentist often call us for help because they’re at the end of their tether. Their teeth don’t look nice any more or they’re in a lot of pain with toothache, and they want to make the first step to seeing a dentist and getting their teeth sorted out.

"Some people have such bad dental phobia that they haven’t seen a dentist for years. It’s common for us to hear from someone in their twenties or thirties or even older who hasn’t been to the dentist since childhood. Recently, a 16-year-old girl whose mother has a dental phobia called the helpline. The mother had never taken the daughter to the dentist – and now the girl desperately wanted to have a dental check-up."

Dental advances

If you haven’t seen a dentist for several years because of fear or anxiety, be reassured that you should find the experience more bearable nowadays.

"Most people who are scared of the dentist have bad memories from childhood of the smells and sounds of the surgery," says Karen. "Modern dental surgeries are much friendlier environments, with flowers in the waiting room, art on the walls, a pleasant reception area and polite staff.

"It’s altogether a gentler experience. Of course, you’ll still have the smells and sounds of the dental surgery but these are less noticeable than they used to be with instruments hidden from sight and background music playing. Even drills aren’t as noisy as they used to be," she adds.

Advances in technology have also improved dentistry. Treatment can now be completely painless. The dental wand (a computerised injection system that looks like a pen and delivers the anaesthetic very slowly so it is painless) is great for anyone with a needle phobia. A numbing gel can also be used to numb your gums before an injection so you don’t feel the needle.

8 tips to ease dental fear

If you’re anxious about seeing the dentist, here are Karen’s tips to ease the fear:

  • Find an understanding dentist. Ask friends and family if they can recommend one or look for someone who advertises themselves as an expert with anxious patients. Search for your local dentists here.
  • Once you've found someone you think may be suitable, visit the surgery to have a look around, meet the receptionist and dentist and see the environment. Tell the dentist that you're anxious so they know beforehand.
  • Pick an appointment time early in the morning so you have less time to dwell on it.
  • The first appointment will simply be a check-up so don’t worry that you’ll be launched into having a filling, the drill or a needle. See this first visit as your chance to get to know the dentist.
  • Take a friend with you to your appointment. The dentist won’t mind if they accompany you throughout the check-up or treatment.
  • Agree a sign with the dentist to signal that you need a break and want them to stop. It can be as simple as pointing your finger, and will help you feel more in control.
  • If you think it will help, start gradually with a clean and polish then work up to more extensive treatment once you’ve built up trust and rapport with your dentist.
  • Take a personal stereo with you to listen to music during your visit. It will help you relax.

NHS sedation clinics 

If you're extremely nervous, ask your dentist to refer you to an NHS sedation clinic. These clinics are specifically for nervous dental patients. 

Some people find simple inhalation sedation very helpful to relax them for dental treatment. This is a bit like gas and air given during childbirth, but instead of being delivered through a mask it comes through a nosepiece.

If you're extremely nervous you may prefer intravenous sedation (through an injection into your hand or arm) during treatment. The drugs won’t send you to sleep – you’ll be awake and able to talk to the dentist – but they’ll calm and relax you so deeply you probably won’t remember much of what happened.

 

Page last reviewed: 02/12/2013

Next review due: 02/12/2015

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The 33 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

DrillFear said on 06 October 2014

At the moment I am suffering with a really bad toothache and a possible abscess and have finally book a dental appointment.
I have been avoiding doing so for the past 7 months when my dentist done a botched job of a filling.

I've had a fear of the dentist since I had my first abscess around 8 years ago and had to take a vile medicine as well as undergo painful treatment. My last visit to the dentist has increased my fear, i was crying and shaking severely in the chair while she drilled poked and prodded my mouth, she gave me excessive injections and my mouth was numb for twice the amount of time she said it would be and as she cracked one of my teeth and continued to put in a filling, 2 days later the bit of my tooth she chipped fell out and I had to return. she blamed ME for the chipped tooth and tried to force me to have treatment then and there so I refused and haven't been back to her since. another one of my teeth cracked and I've been to afraid to do anything about it because of my experiences.

now this toothache is so bad that it has pushed me to go to try a new dentist I'm super scared that I will pass out in the chair because I tend to hold my breath when I'm in pain discomfort or fear, and I am seriously considering sedation to get through this.

weirdly comforting to know that I am not the only one with a fear of the dentist, these comments have given me a positive look to steps of overcoming this silly fear!

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LilMiss95 said on 13 September 2014

I currently have a toothache which means i haven't eaten in nearly two days and i haven't had much sleep. I really need to go dentists as i haven't for a long while as they petrify me. Even walking in seeing the chair. I'm going to try the headphones option

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jan81 said on 26 June 2014

after reading this i feel like iv registered with the wrong dentist im in my 30s havnt seen a dentist in years to to bad childhood experiance i built up the courage to visit the dentist through pain of tooth ache i was told i needed four teath removeing and my lower front teath capping before i lose those also at this point the fear just went through me so i asked can we start with the capping of front and work up to the extraction and my dentist said he wouldnt give me any treatment until i have them removed i havnt been back scince and im still in pain all time what is best for me to do i really do have a phobia amd he didnt want to discuss a plan just take the teath out before anything else >< really struggling with this

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NadineOsb said on 20 May 2014

Personally, I've always disliked the dentist because of the pain when they poke at your cavities and the pain when they stick that huge needle into your gums, but also I've never liked the attitude of my dentist. I've had the same one for all my 18 years so I don't know if this is typical of dentists but I've always felt like he has a really condescending, patronising 'I told you so' kind of attitude which really doesn't help, especially on top of the pain. I feel a little bit like he tries to embarrass me if I ever need a filling (I've had two in my lifetime) because I may not be taking as much care of my teeth as I should.. I understand that he needs to give me advice and I welcome that, but it's just the way he says it that I really hate. I don't know, he's just always been given the impression that he thinks he's better than me in some way and it's really unappealing.

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shonya said on 09 May 2014

I was so scared of going to the dentist when my tooth broke I threw up and cried for days. Because I went early it was nothing and it was fixed in 20 minutes. I told my dentist I was nervous and he really made me feel comfortable!

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Adam Norton said on 07 May 2014

Could you tell me if its possible to have all my teeth removed so I can have denturess please as my teeth are really decayed and broken. Im terrified of dentist so I want to be put to sleep in hospital to have this done. This is also really making me rather depressed now. ive been to several dentists but been told they couldnt or they could repair them. but i have loads of teeth missing and its getting me so down now. thanks.

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User297576 said on 10 March 2014

I used to have a dental phobia but had to force myself to go one day as knew I needed a few fillings and teeth were becoming painful.
Each time you go to the dentist and you find that you coped (yeah, it might have been terrifying, you might have had uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety) - each time you go and realise you can cope, something very clever happens in the brain - a new pathway starts to be made. Think of this as a field of grass. The pathway to the dentist isn't really easy to walk on because you've avoided it so much but the pathway to your avoidance behaviour is very easy to access because you've walked on it so often. However, each time you go to the dentist and walk along that pathway, the path eventually becomes more visible, more trodden and easier to walk on. The old avoidance pathway isn't being used now so the grass starts to grow over it and becomes less and less visible to see, whilst the new pathway to the dentist gets easier and easier to walk on. Eventually, after walking on the new pathway to the dentist a few times, the old avoidance pathway is totally overgrown and can't be seen at all, but the new pathway to the dentist is now such a breeze to walk on. At this stage, you'll have no difficulty going to the dentist.
That's the way our brains work....it's a fact. Try it - but keep walking that pathway as often as you can or the grass will grow over it again. Only took me a handful of trips to the dentist to make that path.
Be honest with your dentist. I said to my dentist, 'I'm terrified of you and fear I might have a panic attack in the chair'. She was very, very supportive and said, 'well we can always stop for a break and what's the worst that could happen? I think you'll find the world wont end and you'll cope no matter what!'
Now I look forward to the dentist, thanks to the pathway built on the realisation that I could cope and there was nothing to fear.
:-)

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megachocs said on 15 February 2014

I hadn't been to the dentist for 9 years since I had my braces taken out. I had 2 broken teeth on either side of my mouth at the back.
I was petrified to even think about going, but I had my daughter and I had to take her so plucked up the courage to just sort myself out.
After the initial appointment I felt so much better as my dentist was lovely. My next appointment both my teeth came out and it was all over within 15 minutes. All them years I had my broken teeth and it was over like that.
I dont feel so scared about the dentist now and I think thats because my dentist was so nice and understanding.

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P2010 said on 04 February 2014

I have a dental phobia. I am 60 and all my life I have had a fear of dentists because of a school dentist who was an animal: Deep fillings with no pain relief, ignorant attitude, rude ... - this has caused so much problems to me

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Nona_1512 said on 29 January 2014

Mine isn't necessarily a fear of the dentist.
I just suffer from anxiety attacks and I have a messed up heart that doesn't like to beat right, and I'm afraid I will have an anxiety attack while I'm in the dentists chair with his hands and drills shoved in my mouth.

I've had a few anxiety attacks while I was at the dentist and it's not fun at all.

I learned my lesson about Novocaine though! It causes your heart to race really bad, and I really can't have that!
So maybe next time you're at the dentist ask for the alternative?

My parents never made us go to the dentist, or brush our teeth growing up, so I've had a lot of problems with my teeth here lately (obviously I started brushing my teeth when I was old enough to know better but I still had quite a few years where I didn't)
I can finally afford the dentist, but I can't make myself go... Even though I know I have a cavity in one of my front teeth...

Being put to sleep terrifies me, having a root canal terrifies me because of how long it takes...

Wow, I feel a lot worse after typing this all out...
Ughhh need to make an appointment....

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ChelseaM1998 said on 27 January 2014

The drill is worse that anything!! I isn't the look or sound, it just hurts!! I had to have teeth out in the hospital instead of the dentist before because I was crying so much, they couldn't do anything! I feel like crying now just the thought that I have the dentist tomorrow:( help

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ChelseaM1998 said on 27 January 2014

I am absolutely terrified of the dentist, I'm only 15 and I try to get out of seeing the dentist. It's horrible, when I was about 6 I had to have a needle to numb my mouth but it wouldn't work, the dentist kept giving me loads of needles but they just wouldn't work, she got fired I think because it's dangerous to use that many or something, I got a different dentist now and I cant even understand him, I don't know what he's doing and he hurts! Not even joking! I got a check up tomorrow morning and I have a painful lump on my gum and I'm scared he has to do something drastic that's going to hurt to get rid of the lump! I'm terrified and stressing myself out, nothing will stop my fear of the dentist! I'm scared:(

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dogbone said on 23 January 2014

I will share my own experiences if only to show whoever wants to know how these phobias?? Can start!!
Mine was like this. Once upon a time my mother could not attend the school dentist with me at lawson road (I think it was) I was anyway able to make my own way, I reckon I was about 9 at the time? Anyway the dentist called me in and I sat in the chair and the usual not been careful.Need some fillings! But having very sensitive teeth I just had to have an injection and the preparations were made and no injection? I protested! May as well have said it to the wall? The boss had apparently spoke!! Well she was I know i/c of the dental site miss???? She held me down physically!! While the other one did the work! I was absolutely frightened to death!! Pain? I have never ever in my life felt pain like it! I pity those poor kids. Now I do know I have no enamel on my teeth! And I am still petrified of dentists. More especially as I now at 57 have a load of stumps and a herniated spine which I cannot even lie down on the bed on. So what chance the dreaded chair? Eeeuch!

Dogbone

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spr90 said on 10 October 2013

I am one of a small group of people who are an alergic reaction to the local anathetic. When serving in the armed forces I had to see the dentist. He told me I was talking out of my hat no one it alergic. After the secon injection the inside of my mouth had started to swell and I was having difficulty in brething. Luckerly we were in a hospital and he could get help quickly. A doctor who was passing the door managed with a lot of force to get an air way in to my mouth. I was then taken to a side room. I do not remember anything after that for 3 days.
The last time I had any work dune was in 2001andt was at a hospital were I was sedated as soon as I got to the ward. I then had an operation to remove 3 bad teeth and removeal of 4 retaind roots from teeth that had been brocken by the doctor forceing the air way in back in 1974. Now I need to go though it all again.

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tigger2809 said on 30 July 2013

I have a complete fear of the dentist following bad experiences as a child - had to have so called fish teeth removed in hospital under GA as well as several fillings and being haunted by the memories of the dentist basically telling me that I was going to be sat in the chair until he had finished as he did 3 fillings in one go even though i was in absolute tears and at the time my mom wasn't allowed to be in the room with me.

I have 3 children now aged 9,6 and 3 and do take them to the dentist every 6 months, 2 of my kids haven't had any problems with their teeth but my eldest seems to be following me as she has already had 2 fillings and has to have another 3 at the end of this month. I have had 2 teeth basically discinigrate since having my last 2 children with bits of the teeth showing through the gum which as grown over, 1 tooth has semi broken and the gum has grown over the missing piece. And I am beginning to get toothache where my one tooth is missing even though it broke a long time ago

I know I need to get my teeth sorted but the memories of my childhood is terrifying me even though i have no problems taking my children to the dentist. I really need to know if there is a dentist in the Huyton area that would sedate me to do the work as I honestly couldn't face just having injections in my gums.

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Meerkats93 said on 05 July 2013

The last time I visited the dentist it was two years ago, I had to have a tooth pulled out and I had to over over ten injections to make my mouth numb after that my mouth was constantly bleeding I could eat or drink properly. I have always had a fear of going to the dentist due to have lots of treatment when I was younger. At the moment I have a wisdom tooth coming through and two cracked teeth but I am absolutely petrified of going to the dentist just to even talk to them, and thinking of the treatment I might have to have turns my stomach, but I can't handle being in pain much longer....., someone please help me I'm actually desperate .

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peach fuzz said on 13 April 2013

I have read through these comments and I am really encouraged by them to take the first step and go to the dentist. I haven't seen a dentist for probably 6 years, maybe longer. Its so long I really can't remember. I have to say I am absolutely terrified but I know I need to go. Been having some gum problems the last few weeks and while a mouth wash has helped im not convinced its enough and I really don't want to start losing teeth! I'm too vain for that! It's only when your mouth starts feeling sore or uncomfortable that you realise how much you take it for granted. Mouth pain becomes the main focus of your day because its constant and obviously you use your mouth for so many things. Luckily here in southend we have a dental clinic at the university where treatment is free (cost has been another factor) so this week I will take a deep breath and make an appointment and hopefully I'll be brave enough to get through the door!!

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Galaxy123 said on 12 March 2013

I finally went to the dentist after putting off some treatment for a number of years and was surprised to find that the experience was no where near as bad as I was expecting. I think that the longer you leave it, the worse your mind perceives it will be. I had a word with the dentist and hygienist about my anxiety before my treatment and they were really nice. They worked at a pace I was comfortable with and although I was still v nervous ( and embarrassed by these nerves ! ) they managed to relax me enough to carry out some fillings and start some treatment for periodontal disease. They were well used to dealing with anxiety and as a result they are able to save my teeth. I would encourage anybody out there who is suffering with dental pain to pick up the phone and make that appointment, don't put it off any longer. Chances are that it won't be as bad as you are expecting - you're the one in control and with the help of an understanding dentist you can sort it out

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barleydog said on 06 December 2012

I am ashamed of my teeth but scared of the dentist! It probably goes back to when I was a child and my then dentist suggested some extractions to 'thin out' my 'crowded' mouth. I wish I'd had it done as, since then, I've had lots of problems and pain. 'Butcher' Brown didn't help with an extraction which involved his knee on my chest! All because I didn't take earlier advice!
My tip is, if your main fear is pain, take a couple of pain killers half an hour before your appointment. It'll help with any discomfort and give you a sense of control (as in 'it would have been worse if I hadn't taken control').
I've moved house a few times and lost touch with my best dentist ever. I'm sorry to admit that her beauty did a bit to offset the trauma of the visit. Sorry if that sounds a bit 'pervy'!
I also begrudge the cost of dentistry which, I believe, should be a lot cheaper if not free.
I am now out of work and, with no hope of improving my smile, my likelihood of getting through a job interview is small, especially at the age of 50+.
I've given you some scary bits BUT if you're young with all your life before you take a tip from me: Bite the bullet (couldn't resist a joke!) and get the problem sorted. Most dentists sympathise so just tell them. Some may offer some sort of 'knock-out' anesthesia - I had wonderful root canal work under intra-venous 'sleepy-stuff' but it cost a bit more.
Good Luck

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Fearofthedark said on 05 November 2012

Went to dentist last year and was informed 3 teeth had infection and needed extraction. Dentist failed to extract even 1 tooth when she couldnt fully numb the tooth(she explained this was due to infection). She did drill 2 of the teeth and filed the infected roots which was pain on a scale i never knew existed.

After this i pleaded to be referred to a hospital to be given general anaesthaesia for the extractions but instead was sent to another clinic to see a oral surgeon. When i contacted this clinic they said the surgeon would be twice as fast as previous dentist... twice as fast...

Needless to say i didnt go and in shame and fear i didnt return to previous dentist.

One year later i have developed an abcess in one of the teeth that failed to be extracted. I know i have to see a dentist but honestly i would rather die than go through it all again. Had 6 extra teeth removed as a child in the chair, 4 wisdom teeth removed under general after dentist cracked and failed to remove them in chair....

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procrastionatior said on 14 July 2011

i also have a decayed tooth at the front of my tooth which i am very self concious about. i want to go but i am so scared and my partner moks me about and calls me pirate. i also have a rotting tooth in the back of my mouth. and i need fillings. i ned to know how much it will be.

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Andi_1986 said on 19 October 2009

I haven't been to a Dentist now for about 5 Years due to the fear factor.
Last Time I went to the Dentist I had to have a tooth removed, but due to the fact that I'd had an Abcess there, I had to be injected 9 Times with the Anaesthetic before that side of my mouth went numb, I actually felt as though I was going to be sick.

And yesterday and Abcess appeared in my mouth, and I'm not registred with any of the Dentist's in my Local area, and I just can not bring my self to go into a Dentists.

What can I do??

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Becki_1989 said on 06 May 2009

I had to go to the emergency dentist a couple of years ago and had to have a tooth out as i had two teeth up in the middle of my mouth. So i went to the dentist and had to have one out, so i had three injections to numb my mouth and as my mouth wasnt numb enough i had to have a fourth one i got told that the fourth one wouldnt hurt as much because i already had three and my mouth was kinda numb already, but as i had the fourth injection it was more painful than the other three put together. So i went to the dentist in november because i had really bad tooth ache the dentist told me i have an abcess! He game me a precription for some medican for it but i didnt take it as i hated the taste. After reading everything above im still to scared to go to the dentist to get my abcess sorted out! Do you think im being stupid by not going to the dentist? This abcess has stopped me from eating on the right side of my mouth since september 2008. Im scared im going to have to have the tooth taken out, which i really dont want. Its my 4th tooth on the right side of my mouth. Half the tooth is rotton and the other is white. It looks horrible.

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User193652 said on 04 March 2009

Yesterday I had my first appointment in over 10 years, as one of my front teeth has broken. I had a white filing in it which came out some months ago and I patched it up myself cos I was too scared to go to dentist. Anyhow, spent all yesterday in tears about it but they are going to send me to the Dental Unit @ Arrowe Park hospital, Wirral. the dentist I saw was really nice and explained everything clearly. As I was so nervous, they decided not to do anything there and then, as my treatment is quite extensive. I am still very nervous about all the work I need, and the fact that my teeth are in a really bad way. But at least I know I can get them sorted and a pain free (and less traumatic) way. Fingers crossed it will go OK

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User155965 said on 13 February 2009

i took my daughter to the dentist today, we'd tried last week but their incompetence is beyond a joke, she need all her 5's taken out because of overcrowding, the numpty of a dentist has no patience for her, raised his voice to her, told her to stop wasting his time, he's hurt her once before, when using numbing gel to pull a baby tooth out, and she's never forgotten it, i didnt know how much it had effected her til today, he's put the fear of God into her, she's only 12, and now just mentioning him puts her into an uncontrollable fit of the shakes, what can i do?

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User155965 said on 13 February 2009

i took my daughter to the dentist today, we'd tried last week but their incompetence is beyond a joke, she need all her 5's taken out because of overcrowding, the numpty of a dentist has no patience for her, raised his voice to her, told her to stop wasting his time, he's hurt her once before, when using numbing gel to pull a baby tooth out, and she's never forgotten it, i didnt know how much it had effected her til today, he's put the fear of God into her, she's only 12, and now just mentioning him puts her into an uncontrollable fit of the shakes, what can i do?

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User151313 said on 11 February 2009

I had many bad experiences in the past with dentists, and in recent years, although I had caring dentists and they would give me injections these never helped fully and I was still in a lot of pain which they really couldn't understand why I was still feeling pain. Until it was explained that I was blocking the pain relief out of fear. So a circle of fear of pain, me blocking the pain relief and getting more pain!

I went to a hypnotherapist (sceptically!) and when I returned to my dentist I was able to have heavy scaling done with no needle, and when I had root canal treatment - with an injection of course - I almost nodded off. My treatments since then have been so much better. Our fears are very powerful and can stop the thing that is trying to ease the pain.
I do hope this helps someone.

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Natalie50 said on 03 November 2008

Hello Can anyone suggest a good dentist in the Kent area BR1 or BR4. I am a nervous dental patient and I need to find one that offers sedation. Can anyone help please?

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Kevin said on 31 July 2008

I relate to all of the above. However I am having a real hard time finding a dentist who offers a sedation clinic. Can anyone help? I live in the Bexley area of Kent.

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leah said on 16 July 2008

Have a dental appointment at 10 today, havent slept all night so scared. Will I get through the door? My dentist is brilliant all work is done under IV Sedation I dont feel a thing. I am still scared, scared of pain, scared of gagging, scared of what the dentist will say.

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Rachel said on 06 July 2008

Its so good to know im not alone though!!

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Rachel said on 06 July 2008

I am petrified of the dentist due to such bad experiences, lack of communication with every dentist I ever had due to them not being english, not explaining things properly, not understanding them and expierencing alot of pain as a child!! I am 21 and at the moment I am in complete denial. I accept that i am afraid of the dentist but I am not prepared to do anything about it yet!!

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louise said on 24 March 2008

i an terrifide so is my partner, i have a decayed tooth at the front, it looks so bad, i try not to smile or laugh as i dont want people t see it, after reeding this i am going t find a dentis n go, its my aunties 70th birthday soon and i intend to smile on every picture.

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