Fear of the dental drill

Written by the Dental Fear Central Web Team
Last updated on January 17, 2021

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

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


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, and only used for procedures deemed to be especially painful. Not surprisingly, if this has happened to you, 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 drill with pain, it can be difficult to unlearn this association. Admittedly, few people truly enjoy the sound of the handpiece, even if they haven’t had bad experiences in the past.

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

Here are some tips for dealing with a fear of the drill:

Getting comfortable

  • Have a stop signal agreed with your dentist in case you need to take a break, or in case you need more numbing.
  • Ask your dentist to check that you are numb (for example, with the explorer or a puff of air) before using the handpiece.
  • Use the handpiece in short increments (e.g. 5 seconds on, 10 seconds off), especially at the start. This prevents you from feeling overwhelmed and allows your dentist to check on you to see if you’re really numb and feeling ok.
  • 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 one dose, but it’s easy to give more.
  • You may prefer to keep your eyes closed during treatment.
  • You can bring a blanket, or a favourite soft toy, to make you feel more comfortable and secure.
  • Make a conscious effort to relax. Choose a relaxation technique, such as belly-breathing, deliberately relaxing the muscles which tense up when you’re anxious, or guided imagery.
  • Squeeze a stress ball (available from toy shops and pound shops).
  • Electric handpieces are quieter than traditional handpieces. They are slowly becoming more commonplace, so you could try and find a dentist who uses an electric handpiece.

Distraction

Blending out the sounds

  • Bringing 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 try to blend out the sounds of the handpiece. This may 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 above. 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 the link above, then download the file.

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 look at, touch and hear the handpiece. Our expectations about the size and noise of the drill are often exaggerated, and getting familiar with it can help put things into perspective.

Seeing what is happening

Sometimes it helps to see what is happening. Our imagination can often run wild. If you like the idea, 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 sounds they may encounter via YouTube and similar. But a lot of people find this approach unhelpful and extremely anxiety-inducing. It is usually much better to face the sounds together with a supportive dentist. Most people find that YouTube videos or mp3 recordings make their fears worse, rather than better.

Visit our support forum to get help with this and other fears, or to simply get things off your chest!

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