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Tame Your Fear of the Dentist

Does the mere idea of visiting a dentist send chills down your spine? If so, you've got company.

Up to half of us have at least some fear of visiting the dentist. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, about 40 million Americans avoid going to a dentist because of fear and anxiety.

"We all like our space, and when you sit in my chair I have to enter your space to examine your mouth," says Matthew J. Messina, D.D.S., a spokesman and consumer adviser for the American Dental Association (ADA). "We're bothered by having that space invaded, by varying degrees."

Easing fear of the dentist can come down to a matter of trust. Choose your dentist with care. Dr. Messina suggests you ask family members and friends for suggestions. Ask them whether their dentist puts them at ease.

"Break down anxiety with information," he says. "Often, I'm working so closely that you can't see what I'm doing. This adds to fear because people need to know what's going on. I make it a point to tell patients what I'm about to do and what I'm doing."

Discuss your fears with the dentist. "If I know you're bothered by noise of equipment, smells, or you feel claustrophobic, there are things I can do," Dr. Messina says. He offers patients a television and headphones. "Sometimes, it's as simple as giving a patient the remote control for the television. They feel they don't have control in this situation, and this allows them to feel they have control over something."

If your dentist doesn't have a TV or radio, bring a portable audio player with a headset, listen to music, and picture a relaxing scene.

If you're worried about pain, take comfort in modern technology and anesthetics. In a survey cited by the Journal of the American Dental Association, 63 percent of adults felt dental visits involved less pain now than in childhood.

The ADA also suggests you pick a time for your visit when you'll feel less pressure. This might mean an early morning or a Saturday.

If you regularly brush, floss, and follow the advice of your dentist, you can reduce the need for painful dental procedures.