Relax at the Dentist

By Cara McDonald

It used to be that nervous dental patients were given the buzz of nitrous oxide or numbing fog of Valium to help them relax in the chair. But these treatments can cause nausea or leave you feeling looped. In lieu of drugs, many dental practices now soothe mild to moderate anxiety with music. And there’s science to back them up: A 2009 study in Canada found music reduces pain and anxiety in children undergoing dental procedures; and a 2007 study in Spain found music as effective as diazepam (Valium) at relieving preoperative anxiety.

“The ‘distraction technique’ for dealing with fear is growing in popularity,” says Kimberly Harms, DDS, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association. “A movie to watch, an iPod full of music—these strategies have proven very effective in keeping patients’ minds off the procedure.”

Denver dentist Dale Roberts, DDS, hands out iPods preloaded with tunes that soothe and distract. Instead of the syrupy music you usually hear at the dentist, Roberts’ tracks range from Euro dance to Louis Armstrong. From a musical standpoint, the songs have similar qualities: Most are vocal-centric and have steady and predictable rhythms, acoustic instrumentation, and a major key tonality. The overall effect: Diversion and relaxation. “We see people kind of melt into the chairs,” Roberts says. “And when patients are relaxed, they’re easier to work on."