If You Suffer From Dental Anxiety, It May Be Genetic

Are you terrified of going to the dentist? Maybe it’s time to cut yourself some slack. New research has indicated that dentist-related anxiety could actually have a genetic cause. If the thought of the dentist gets your pulse racing and your stomach aching, perhaps your ancestors are to blame.

The newest findings came from a study conducted by the Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia. Researchers assembled a sample group of 144 participants ranging from 18 to 41 years old. The participants took surveys designed to examine the patients’ levels of general and dentist-specific anxiety, fear of pain, and level of dental care avoidance. The participants were then tested for a particular gene known as MC1R.

The result of the study showed that people who possessed the MC1R gene were significantly more likely to report dental anxiety and fear of dentists. Worryingly, they were more than twice as likely to avoid dental visits as the participants without variants of the gene.

So what do we know about this dentist anxiety-causing gene? It’s actually the gene that causes people to have red hair. The full name is the melanocortin-1 receptor, and this gene determines whether a person will be born as a natural redhead. Scientists had the idea to study a possible connection to dentist fear because natural redheads are resistant to local anesthetics and therefore may experience more pain during dental treatments. Sixty-five of the 67 redhaired participants had the gene, compared to 20 of the 77 dark-haired participants.

Changing Approaches to Dentist Anxiety

Thanks to this study, dentists now have another tool to understand the causes of people’s dental fears. They already know plenty about the effects of these fears, and it’s not good. Experiencing a phobia of dentists makes people much less likely to stick to a regular tooth cleaning schedule. And failing to keep up with regular preventative care means that people are more likely to develop painful and difficult to treat dental problems. When they do visit the dentist, their care is sure to be excruciating because the issues are so far gone — this results in a vicious cycle creating more fear.

The problem isn’t just for the patient. When people are receiving expensive treatments instead of relatively cheap regular preventative care, the costs are spread out throughout the healthcare system. It can also be frustrating or upsetting for dentists to work with patients who experience high levels of stress during their visits.

There are steps that dentists can take to help allay the fears and anxieties of their patients. Some dentists are willing to prescribe anti-anxiety medication to their patients before starting treatment. Others prefer to take holistic approaches incorporating mindfulness therapy. Unfortunately, dental anxiety sufferers are often unwilling to admit their fears and seek assistance.

The researchers hope that this study can help change people’s perceptions of their dentist anxiety and make dentists more proactive about reaching out to their patients about it — especially the natural redheads that visit their practice. Addressing dental phobias will go a long way toward improving overall levels of oral health. If you’d like to sleep through your dental appointment, reach out to our offices to learn more about sleep dentistry