Jan. 11, 2011 -- If you cringe at the high-pitched squeal of a dentist's drill, you're not alone. Studies have shown it's that very sound that makes people anxious about going to the dentist.
"It's been demonstrated that people's blood pressures rise as soon as they hear the sound, even if they're not sitting in the chair yet," said Dr. Mark Wolff, professor and chair of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care at the New York University College of Dentistry.
"It's one of many triggers that make people nervous about coming to the dentist," said Dr. Denis Kinane, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Dental Medicine in Philadelphia.
For those who fear the sound of the dental drill, there's a new technology that will make getting fillings sound easier.
A British dentist has developed a device that filters out the noise of the drill. Patients can still hear other sounds, such as the dentist talking.
"The way that technology works is it listens to the sound, then takes that sound and puts the exact opposite wave around it and if you put two sound waves together with one going in and another going in the opposite direction, there's no sound that comes out," said Wolff.
This particular device isn't on the open market yet, so dentists haven't had the chance to try it out on patients. There aren't many products that are very effective at drowning out the drill noise, but dentists say they do what they can, and encourage patients to do the same.
"Most of my patients that don't like the sound of the drill are usually comforted by music or something that distracts them from the noise," said Dr. Ruchi Sahota, a Fremont, Calif.-based consumer adviser for the American Dental Association. "I encourage patients to bring iPods or listen to music, but keep the music at a level where they can still hear my instructions."
"Some dentists try other methods to distract patients, like having an assistant touch patients on the shoulder," said Kinane.
Wolff said he's tried noise-cancelling headphones and electric drills, but neither option has been effective. Noise-cancelling headphones don't mask the high-frequency drill sound, and the electric drills also emit a high-pitch sound.
"We can also sometimes use lasers that can cut through enamel, and there are other instruments that make different noises," said Kinane.
Dentists say it's unlikely that drills will change very much. In order to be effective, the bits have to move very fast, which is what makes that shrieking sound.
With so few options available to help silence the drills, dentists say they welcome new technology that can help patients relax.
"Anything that can help take something out of the environment that causes this anxiety I am absolutely willing to try it," said Wolff.
Until the British inventors are able to make their new device available, dentists have other ways of allaying their patients' fears.
"When there is anxiety, it's often not the drill, it's just the anxiety of going to the dentist and having a source of pain in the mouth," said Sahota.
She recommends that patients find a supportive dentist and talk with the dentist about their fears.
"The most important thing is comfort and being comfortable as soon as they walk in," she said.
Above all else, dentists stress the importance of good oral hygiene that could help people avoid the drill entirely.
"Brush twice a day, floss once and see the dentist regularly. Then, they don't have to get into positions where they have to hear the drill," said Sahota.