For many among us, a visit to the dentist is something that is at the bottom of our “to do” list and, if we are lucky, will disappear from the bottom as if by magic. We are deluged in adverts with smiling faces (of course, with perfect teeth) promising an unbelievably gentle experience, but though we may buy all sorts of rubbish offered in ads on our Facebook pages, pain-free dentistry is, to most of us, an oxymoron.

The problem is not that the dentist is on vacation from performing in “The Little Shop Of Horrors,” and looks like Steve Martin to boot, but rather that we are expecting pain and our minds do their best to honor our expectations.

 This focus on expected pain is the subject of a paper by Johnston et al in the current week's issue of the Public Library of Science (1). The question is can we keep our thoughts elsewhere and not feel much pain, or if we have our mind concentrating on our bodies, will our fears be rewarded?

There were no dentists with big, chromium plated pliers or other fearsome instruments in this study. Instead warm irons up to 50 °C were applied to the forearms of 16 young women and 7 young men. Temperatures were varied at the same time as warning signals were given, but these were psychologists so sometimes the signals lied.

The matrix of information includes results from the participants focusing on their body, thinking about something outside their body (to take their mind off it – as we are so often told), correct warning info and surprise, surprise here is the pain.

The results that we need to memorize for our trip to the dentist are 1. Concentrate on what your body is feeling and that nasty pain is just one more thing and might not feel too bad; 2. put earplugs in so you don’t hear the warning that this may hurt – that phrase is a recipe for a painful time and you’re guaranteed to squeak ouch.

  1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038854

Leave a Reply