Diffusing Dental Anxiety with Aromatherapy

Today’s dental practice looks nothing like our father’s dental practice. There have been mind-blowing advances in technology that allow us to create crowns in an hour, detect caries with a laser, remove decay and restore a tooth without anesthesia, and identify pathogenic periodontal bacteria with a spit test.

Unfortunately, in some instances the trends in healthcare are more myopic than ever before. But there is a movement that is being lead by thought leaders like the American Academy of Oral Systemic Health, whose goal it is to reunite the mouth with the body, and to treat the patient holistically. We are a body first with teeth and gums that serve to keep the body alive, so shouldn’t we always have the total body’s well-being as our focus?

Using Scents to Combat Dental Anxiety

Most patients walk into dental offices scared to death. The sounds, the smells even the energy of the office usually support their fear and dental anxiety—not dispel it. As the owner of a dental and medical office design company, my number one goal is to create an atmosphere of high trust and low fear. Our designers accomplish that by addressing all the senses and create a calming environment using colors, lighting, sound abatement to reduce operatory noise, furniture, and artwork that make the patient feel like they are visiting a friend’s home.

Often the most important sense is overlooked—the sense of smell. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that play a strong role in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. Visual, auditory, and tactile information does not pass though these brain areas and is why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.

Some offices bake cookies for the aromatic effect, but should we really be promoting sugar and white flour to our patients? Why not enhance the mood of a clinical setting using time-honored and scientifically validated aromatherapy? One study concluded that women who were exposed to orange odor had a lower level of state anxiety, a more positive mood, and a higher level of calmness than the control group. These findings support the theory that odors are capable of altering emotional states and may indicate that the use of aromatherapy is helpful in reducing dental anxiety in our patients.

Aromatherapy makes use of pure oil essences from plants and flowers that act as hormone-like stimulants to improve a patient’s health balance. Natural and gentle oils like lavender, bergamot, sandalwood, and basil are beneficial in their power to sooth, relax, and calm.

Aromatherapy is not synonymous with environmental fragrancing that uses commercial air fresheners, potpourri or scented candles, which can potentially expose both patient and employees to toxic phthalates and other harmful chemicals. Aromatherapy involves scientific use of pure essential oils to produce pharmacodynamics effects.

Caution: when selecting essential oils, it is imperative to choose only high quality pure essential oils.  Anything less than certified pure oils may not produce the desired results and could possibly induce a toxic environment.

The Health Benefits of Essential Oils

There are many benefits to using essential oils. They contain the same regenerating, oxygenating, and immune-strengthening characteristics of the plants from which they are extracted. Essential oils are powerful antioxidants, which help to eliminate free radicals and prevent mutations, fungus, and oxidation in the cells. Essential oils contain both antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. The overuse of antibiotics has caused microorganisms to develop resistance to antibiotics. Microorganisms, however, do not appear to develop tolerance or resistance to the antibacterial effects of essential oils, and essential oils’ antimicrobial power does not diminish over time.

Use of aromatherapy with orange oils has been shown to reduce salivary cortisol and pulse rate in children with anxiety. Many studies have shown that lavender oils have been proven to alter emotional states and mild anxiety, and one specific study concluded aromatherapy provides pain reduction upon needle insertion, certainly beneficial in a dental/medical setting.

In a 2008 study, researchers demonstrated that smelling lavender and rosemary oils for five minutes decreased cortisol levels. The lavender group reported feeling less anxious than the other group. The conclusion was that, although anxiety about future dental visits seems to be unaffected, lavender scent reduces state anxiety in dental patients, and that lavender was an effective “on the spot” treatment to reduce dental anxiety in patients.

Clinical Applications of Aromatherapy

Here are just a few aromatherapy uses in the clinical setting:

  • A simple, inexpensive way of utilizing essential oils is to make a water spray spritzer. In a 4-ounce spray bottle full of water, place 10 to 15 drops of your favorite essential oils. Be sure to shake the contents before each use. A water spritzer can be used to fragrance a room and clean the air prior to each procedure.
  • Alternatively, put a few drops of essential oil(s) onto a cotton ball or gauze square.  The benefit of this application is the patient chooses their favorite oil and is in control of inhaling the aroma when they feel anxious.
  • Diffusers are best utilized in short durations. Recommended time usage: 15 minutes every two hours which is about as long as the ionized micro-droplets will stay suspended in the air. Diffusers are best used for environmental fragrancing, energy sedation, and to clean the air of bacteria and microbes.
  • After long appointments, a great suggestion for the patient is to go home and relax in a nice aromatic bath. (Good advice for the dentist and staff to take for themselves, too!) A really nice touch would be to gift a container of pre-scented Epsom or Dead Sea salts or carrier oil for the patient to put in their bath water to soak in.

The use of essential oils in the dental or dental hygiene office can be very beneficial to your patients. It adds value to your business and brand, and can be a great practice builder. It can also improve the attitudes and enjoyment for you and your employees. So smell the roses, have fun with it and… Relax!

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