When did a visit to the dentist’s office become so scary? Does it date back to the ancient Greeks who used forceps to extract teeth (without Novocaine)? Is it because the Middle Ages saw barbers not only cutting your hair and trimming your beard, but also treating tooth infections by pulling teeth?
Did we really need to see Steve Martin as the iconic and sadistic Orin Scrivello, DDS, in Little Shop of Horrors to make a trip to the dentist uncomfortable at best and terrifying at worst?
Or was it just a bad personal experience with a dentist with a less-than-gentle touch? Wherever our fears stem from, over half of Americans have “dental anxiety.” To treat this, many dentists and patients alike rely on a variety of treatments, including:
In an effort to determine if a non-pharmaceutical solution could be effective at reducing or even eliminating dental anxiety, Austrian researchers turned to acupuncture.
The ancient Chinese art of acupuncture originated over 5,000 years ago. Its tremendous therapeutic benefits have been proven over thousands of years.
Acupuncture is based on the belief that your health is predicated by a balance of chi — or life energy — flowing throughout your body. Both yin and yang energy (or chi) circulate through your body along 12 major pathways called meridians.
The meridians move energy through the body like invisible rivers, flowing deep into the interior of the body through organ systems and skin surfaces. When the energy flow stops or is blocked, the corresponding internal organ system manifests symptoms of disease.
Along all the meridians, there are places where the energy surfaces on the skin. These are called acupuncture points. Stimulating these points on the surface of the skin with a fine needle (acupuncture), laser colored light device, electroacupuncture, or by hand pressure (acupressure) can correct the meridian flow and bring your chi back into balance.
Acupuncture and Dental Anxiety
To determine if acupuncture could help reduce anxiety before a dentist visit, researchers worked with 182 adults aged 18 or older who were all scheduled for a dental procedure. They divided the patients into three groups:
1. Acupuncture at three points on the inside of the ear known to reduce anxiety.
2. Acupuncture at three points on the outside of the ear not associated with anxiety.
3. Control group (no acupuncture).
The points known to reduce anxiety are:
- Top inside of ear (relaxation)
- Lower inside of ear, just above where the lobe attached to the side of the face (tranquilizer)
- Lower inside of the ear, near the upper part of the lobe (master cerebral)
The points that were used but not associated with anxiety included:
- Top outside of ear (finger)
- Middle outside of ear (shoulder)
- Lower outside of ear, near bottom of the lobe (tonsil)
All patients were given a visual analogue scale in which patients rank their anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10. A score of three or higher is considered anxious.
Additionally, all patients were asked to complete the German version of the Spielberger State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI). This measures both anxiety in relation to a specific situation (state anxiety), as well as general anxiety (baseline anxiety). A score of 40 to 49 is considered a high level of anxiety, while a score of 50 or more is considered very high.
Researchers conducted the study in the following manner: The STAI was administered to all participants. While sitting in the dental chair, acupuncture was administered to the test group as well as the “sham” acupuncture group. Acupuncture needles were left in for 20 minutes. The control group simply sat in the chair for 20 minutes.
After the 20 minutes, participants rated their anxiety levels once again using the STAI. Acupuncture patients from both groups were also asked their opinion about the effectiveness of the acupuncture. Needles were then removed and the participants underwent their dental procedures.
Researchers found that both acupuncture groups enjoyed a reduction in anxiety. The treatment group had a 7.3-point reduction, while the “sham” group had a 3.7-point reduction. The control group actually had a 3-point increase in anxiety.
When it came to believing that the acupuncture could ease their anxiety, only 45 percent of the acupuncture participants felt the treatment had any effect. However, an incredible 98 percent said they would use acupuncture for dental anxiety in the future.
Hmmm…. less than half said they predicted it to work, yet nearly every one of them said they’d use it again? That’s sounds a little fishy. It’s almost as if the participants were trying to guess at their involvement or the outcome rather than simply answering the question of effectiveness based on their experience.
Regardless of the reason for this discrepancy, researchers concluded, “Auricular [at the ear] acupuncture at the relaxation, tranquilizer, and master cerebral points effectively reduces state anxiety before dental treatment in anxious patients attending dental treatment.”
Press Down Anxiety
This is great news if your dentist happens to also employ an acupuncturist. However, it is more likely than not that they don’t.
Never fear. You can use acupressure to achieve a similar effect.
Acupressure is closely related to acupuncture. Unlike acupuncture, which requires needles and can only be done by a trained practitioner, acupressure uses the application of gentle finger pressure to specific points on the skin. And you can do it yourself!
Simply locate the same points researchers used here and apply pressure at each spot for 10 to 15 minutes. You can use your fingers and alternate between spots for five minutes at a time or use ear clips specially designed for acupressure at all three spots. Clips can be found online.
 Rodriguez Vazquez LM et al. Stress amongst primary dental care patients. Med Oral Patol Oral Cir Bucal. 2008;13:E253-E256.
 Michalek-Sauberer A et al. Auricular acupuncture effectively reduces state anxiety before dental treatment – a randomized controlled trial. Clin Oral Investig. 2012 Jan 6. [Epub ahead of print.]