Her tooth throbbed painfully for months, as Sandy Abrahamson alternated between taking maximum doses of Tylenol, Motrin and aspirin.
When she finally got herself through the door of a dentist’s office after avoiding an appointment for years, she was informed the molar had decayed to its roots and would have to be pulled. But she was so afraid of injections that she insisted the tooth be yanked out with nothing for the pain.
She withstood the attempt for three hours until she gave in and faced the terror of an injection, tears leaking onto her dental bib. At that point, Abrahamson, a nurse practitioner who lives in Edmonds, Wash., was in the fierce grip of her dental phobia.
“It is not easy to give over control to someone who is going to crawl inside your mouth and do some work, in your mouth, where you breathe and swallow,” Abrahamson said.
Roughly five to 10 percent of the population suffers from dental phobia, but as many as 40 to 75 percent of people experience fear and anxiety related to dentistry that contributes to postponing and cancelling appointments, or avoiding the dentist altogether, according to extensive research on the subject.
A typical response to phobia and fear is avoidance — unless, as in Abrahamson’s case, there is help, which for her came at the intersection of dentistry and psychology. Her dentists work with psychologists at the Dental Fears Research Clinic in Seattle, where the first step of her treatment for several years was meeting with a counselor.
Last week researchers at King’s College in London released the latest study in support of this approach to treating dental phobia and anxiety. They reported that cognitive behavioral therapy — a combination of behavioral modification and talk therapy that is designed to challenge negative or harmful beliefs, known as C.B.T. — offered a reliable long-term solution to dental phobia, anxiety and avoidance.
The British study looked at the experiences of 130 patients — though it did not include a control group with patients who had no C.B.T. treatment — who were considered to be anxious enough about going to the dentist to qualify as phobic. Fear of injections and drilling was the reason for the phobia in a majority of the patients, according to the study.