Fear of the dental drill

“I’m absolutely terrified of the the drill – thinking about that sound sends shivers down my spine!”

“I feel like throwing up just thinking about the drill and the unbearable pain it’s going to cause.”


Some people have had painful encounters with the dental drill because they weren’t properly numb. Or perhaps you weren’t numbed up at all (in many countries, numbing used to be optional). Not surprisingly, if this has happened you will likely feel terrified of the drill.

There should be no pain once the tooth is properly numb – only vibration and light pressure. But once you have been conditioned to associate the sound of the handpiece with pain, it can be difficult to unlearn this association.

Few people enjoy the sound of the handpiece, even if they haven’t had bad experiences in the past. Thankfully, dental equipment is getting quieter, but there is still quite a bit of noise involved. Electric handpieces are quieter than traditional handpieces and are becoming more commonplace. But also, the traditional air-driven models have become less noisy over the years.

You may also associate the handpiece with an attack on your bodily integrity. It may be useful to know that when a dentist cleans out an area of decay, this area is actually made of a mushy material, and not hard like the enamel on the tooth.

Also, some people are worried that the handpiece might slip and injure them. If this is a worry for you, please let your dentist know about it!

There are many ways of dealing with a fear of the drill – choose the tip(s) which you feel might work best for you. Some are based on distraction, others are based on exposure (of course, you can use a mixture of both).

Distraction

Blending out the sounds:

  • Mobile phone with headphonesBringing your mobile phone (or mp3 player) and playing your favourite music is a tip frequently mentioned on our forum. Some people like turning up the volume really high and choosing fast tunes without lengthy gaps in between the tracks, to blend out any sounds.
  • Others prefer more soothing music, relaxation tracks, or tracks with nature sounds such as waves or tropical thunderstorms.
  • It is very helpful to have the “Pause” or volume button handy for when you want to communicate with your dentist:

    “Playing music from your own collection can help but a word of advice is to avoid turning it up so loud that the dentist cannot communicate with you to help you know what to expect as the visit progresses. Usually patients turn up the volume during things that they feel anxious about such as drilling, and turn it down again as soon as it stops. This volume changing may not help, but as a diversion from what is actually happening it can be very useful.” (Fraser Hendrie BDS)

  • Choose earphones that don’t pop out easily.
  • Some dentists provide mp3 players and headphones, but most don’t. The reason might be worry about hygiene regulations. But all dentists will let you bring your own music and headphones.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones have become increasingly popular. These will not get rid of all the noise (especially high-pitched noises), but can help to reduce its impact. We have a page dedicated to this very topic here: Music and noise-cancelling devices
  • Some mp3 tracks are specifically designed for blending out the sounds of the handpiece. This can be an effective solution and provide just enough masking to make the process more pleasant. You can find such an mp3 track (pretend you’re in a rainforest) for download here:

Blend Out Dental Sounds – Rainforest (mp3 Track)

To download this file to a computer:

  • Windows: right-click the mouse cursor over the link. On the menu that opens, select “Save target as…” and select where you want to save the MP3.
  • Mac: hold the option or alt key, click on link, then save to your computer.

Getting comfortable:

  • Some people much prefer to keep their eyes closed during treatment.
  • You can bring a blanket to make you feel more comfortable and secure. Some people also like holding their favourite soft toy.
  • Making a conscious effort to relax can help. Have a stop signal agreed with your dentist in case you need to take a break, or in case you need more numbing. There are various relaxation techniques, such as concentrating on your breathing, deliberately relaxing the muscles which you find tense up when you’re anxious (for example, your shoulder muscles), and self-hypnosis.
  • Do not hesitate to ask for a top-up of local anaesthetic if you don’t feel completely numb! Many people think that they can only have what they are originally given, but it’s easy to give more.
  • If you are worried about not being numb, ask your dentist to check that you are numb (for example, with the explorer or a puff of air) before using the handpiece.
  • Stress balls are malleable balls which can be squeezed with one or both hands to reduce stress and tension. They are available from places like pound shops, toy shops, and drug stores.

Watching TV or DVDs:

A few dentists provide entertainment systems such as TV screens (sometimes with a selection of DVDs – you can also bring your own) or even virtual reality goggles.

Exposure

Getting familiar with the equipment:

It can be helpful to be able to look at, touch and hear the handpiece before it is used. Our expectations about the size and noise of the handpiece are often exaggerated, and getting familiar with the handpiece can help put things into perspective.

Ask your dentist if they can show you the handpiece and ask if you can touch it. If this sounds too scary, you can ask for a prophy handpiece (used for cleanings) with a rubber prophy cup (see photo) first.

Seeing what is happening:

Sometimes it helps to see what is happening. Our imagination can often run wild. Actually seeing what is happening, with the help of a mirror, can put things into perspective.

Preparing for the sounds and sights:

  • Some people find it useful to desensitise themselves to the sounds they may encounter. For example, using an electric toothbrush can help. You can play around with the way sound is amplified by brushing your teeth while having a shower, and letting the water run over your ears. This can be very anxiety-provoking at first, so only try it if you think you can handle it.
  • Depending on the nature and extent of your phobia, you may find it helpful to watch a video where a handpiece is used. Please do not watch this if you feel it might increase your fears.
Related Pages

Fear of Painful Dental Treatment

Music and noise-cancelling devices

The information on this page has been provided by the Dental Fear Central Web Team. Last reviewed on January 4, 2019. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.