Going to the dentist is not exactly a favorite pastime for most of us. But we understand how important it is to get those twice-yearly checkups because we know our oral health impacts our overall health. So, we schedule our appointments every six months or so, and we’re usually very happy we did.
But for some people, dentist visits can be downright anxiety producing. That fear often translates into people putting off appointments for months, even years, at a time – which can often reinforce those fears, because missing regular checkups can lead to more extensive work to fix the dental issues that have crept in over time.
Josh Austin, DDS, a dentist who practices in San Antonio, Texas, deals with patients’ fears daily. He focuses on providing a positive patient experience in his dental office. The most frequent fears he sees tend to be needles and injectable anesthetics. Noises in the dental office, including drills and suction tubes, often are a big trigger for his patients, too – as is the fear of not being in control. “Having someone in your mouth makes people feel very vulnerable,” he says.
Another common anxiety producer Dr. Austin witnesses? Gagging.
“We don’t even use the ‘g’ word around here,” he says.
Gagging in the dental office is a prevalent problem, and dental care-related fear and fear of pain are associated with more frequent gagging, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association.
One very common procedure – taking an impression of your mouth – can be especially tricky for people with an active gag reflex, says Dr. Austin. Dental impressions are used for numerous dental procedures, including getting fitted for crowns and bridges, having your jaw analyzed for custom orthodontic treatments or oral surgery, or getting fitted for a mouth guard to prevent teeth grinding or clenching.
The objective of taking impressions is to create an exact mold of the tooth that needs to be restored, which leads to less pain, healthy mouth function and a repaired smile.
“Impressions are a fundamental part of dentistry,” says Dr. Austin. “We can’t do dentistry without them.”
Since it’s such a common procedure, it’s almost inevitable that patients will experience getting an impression at some point. For gaggers, here’s typically what happens: When the dentist puts the dental impression tray in the mouth, the “oozing” or “gooey” feeling of the viscous impression material can cause the gag reflex to engage. Also, since the gag reflex is our body's response to the stimulation of the soft palate, when the tray touches our soft palate in any way, it can trigger the gag reflex.
A number of tricks can be implemented that help to reduce the severity of the gag reflex during the dental impression procedure. Be sure to let your dentist know that you have an active gag reflex, so you can work together to find a solution that works for you. Many people find that taking deep, even breaths in and out through the nose often helps, as diaphragmatic breathing has long been a proven method to help the body relax. Others believe in the practice of acupressure, which works by positioning your thumb under your fingers and squeezing tightly.
But in Dr. Austin’s view, the best trick is distraction. “When your dentist knows that you have an active gag reflex, he or she needs to become an expert distractor,” he says. “Sure, we can tell you to squeeze your thumb. But really, we’re just trying to distract you. Some great ambient music and good storytelling can work wonders in this situation.”
Whether you’re a gagger or not, impressions are a cornerstone of dentistry and provide the foundation for all restorative treatments. The majority of dentists use traditional dental impression methods, which, given today’s technologies and materials, can now deliver accurate results in as little as 75 seconds. Dentists can capture an impression with less mess and more control and precision than ever before – and patients no longer have to sit with a tray in their mouths for five minutes at a time.
But even impressions are going digital. Digital dental impression systems are being used in more and more dental clinics. With these systems, an oral scanner – which is about the size of a large pen – is waved inside the patient’s mouth while it takes precise digital pictures of the teeth. The scanner doesn’t come into contact with the patient’s teeth or soft palate – which is great for the overall patient experience, and even better news for gaggers.
Dr. Austin sees the advances in traditional and digital impression systems as incredibly positive, especially for his patients with dental fears. And although nothing is going to eliminate the drills and the sounds of suction tubes, he believes that the more technology can help to decrease the barriers to patient comfort, the better the experience will be for everyone.
“Technology is allowing us to focus on the patient experience just as much as the patient’s teeth,” says Dr. Austin. “I envision a day where the negative associations with going to the dentist are eliminated because of technological advances.”