Ask LH: How Can I Make Doctor And Dentist Appointments Less Stressful?

Dear Lifehacker, I hate going to the doctor, especially if I have to get a shot or blood work done. And just the thought of sitting in a dentist's chair fills me with dread. What can I do to make these necessary appointments less stressful — and less painful? Signed, Needle Phobic

Photo remixed via puruan and JAMCO Design (Shutterstock)

Dear NP,

Few people (if any) actually relish the thought of going to the doctor or dentist, so you're definitely not alone in your apprehension. Between the long waits, fear of potential health issues, medical costs, and the prospect of facing a needle or the dental drill — there's a lot to dislike about these appointments.

We don't want to let fear or discomfort get the best of us and prevent us from getting the healthcare we need though. A few simple tricks and mind hacks can help make these experiences more tolerable. Here are some tips, including ones for helping children cope with those scary appointments.

Find the Right Doctor for You

One of the most important things is to have a doctor and dentist that you trust. A stressful situation, like having someone tinker with your mouth, is much worse when you're not sure if he/she is going to do a good job or you're afraid to ask questions. If you don't already have a doctor you like or want to switch providers, get referrals from people you trust.

You will want to look for an office that has pleasant receptionists and possibly the latest technologies or conveniences. Reader's Digest offers this quick tip: check the magazines in the waiting room; if they're current, it suggests great attention to detail. (That's not going to be a deciding factor, but it is one sign.)

If you have a child, the personality of the doctor or dentist and other personnel is even more important. Pay attention to how they work with your child to make him or her feel comfortable or deal with pain or stress. Picture: Erich Ferdinand/Flickr.

Be Prepared for Your Appointment

Part of the stress of medical appointments is they're typically so short (a few minutes in some cases), yet the wait time feels like forever (more than an hour is not unheard of). The more prepared you are ahead of time, the better you will be able to make the most of your time and reduce stress. Here's a little checklist of things you can do to prepare:

  • Before your appointment, prepare a list of any questions or issues you want to discuss. Write down your doctor's responses to them during the appointment.
  • It's also a good idea to bring a list of medications you're taking.
  • Know your private health insurance details.
  • Have a light meal before your appointment, since hunger could increase your body's stress response. Avoid caffeine if it makes you jittery.
  • If knowing what's going to happen during a procedure helps you, read up on it at medical sites like MedicineNet or Mayo Clinic.
  • You can get kids prepared by reading them books like The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor or Show Me Your Smile!: A Visit to the Dentist (Dora the Explorer).

Once you get to the office, expect to wait. (Scheduling medical appointments early in the day can help reduce your wait time and also ensure better care, but waiting could still be inevitable.) Bring reading material or work so you can get things done (and distract yourself), wear comfortable shoes, and perhaps bring a friend.

Besides distracting you and making you feel more comfortable, a friend can be an extra pair of ears to help you remember what the doctor said.

Finally, once the wait is over and you've got just a few minutes with your doctor, bring up the tough issues first. Don't wait until you're about to walk out the door to drop a "By the way..." bomb. Get the discussion of your most important issues over with while you have time.

Make Needles and Other Medical Procedures Less Painful

While lots of medical procedures can make us nervous, getting a shot or blood drawn can be especially frightening. If you have an extreme fear of needles (trypanophobia), you'll need advanced coping methods, but for the typical anxiety over painful needle procedures, a few tricks may help:

  • Drink lots of water before and after a shot or blood draw. The water could help you if you're not feeling well, and it's easy for the blood to be drawn out when you're hydrated.
  • Try to relax. Yes, that's easier said than done, but if you're stressed and your muscles are tensed, it could make it harder for the doctor or technician to find your veins. Deep breathing might help: take a deep breath and let it out while the needle is inserted. For kids, offers this recommendation: "You could hold your finger up like a candle and let your child blow it out when the needle goes in. Make a game out of it — that pesky flame won't go out easily, so your child needs to blow and blow until the blood draw is over. (This is similar to Lamaze breathing.)
  • Cough. The British Medical Journal says that coughing while a needle is being injected can significantly reduce the pain from injections. The cough strategy not only distracts you, it also triggers a sudden rise in blood pressure, which reduces pain perception.
  • Try other distractions. Distracting yourself "appears to be the single most effective technique" to alleviate discomfort from needles, according to the BMJ article noted above. That's where your bring-along friend comes in or you could try focusing on upcoming plans or events. For kids, a Pediatrics study, found that lollipops and asking kids to count have helped reduce children's pain and anxiety when it comes to shots.
  • Ask for a topical anaesthetic to numb the skin.
  • If you're warmed up, it's easier to find the veins. Warm up your arm with a heating pad for 10 to 20 minutes before the shot and dress warmly on the day of your appointment, author Melissa Kaplan advises.
  • If your arm gets too sore easily, or your veins are hard to find there, you can ask to use an alternative site.
  • After two (or maybe three) tries, ask for someone else to do the ob. Dr Greene has a great technique for kids: "There is nothing wrong with requesting that someone else take over, IF you do it nicely. ‘I've promised my son that I won't let anyone stick him more than twice. I know you usually get it the first time, but I really need to keep my word to my son, so I hope you won't mind getting your supervisor. If she's busy, we'll be glad to wait.'
  • If, unfortunately, you have to get shots or blood drawn regularly, try to make friends with the lab technicians. If one seems very good, ask for that person by name.

Relaxation and distraction techniques are also helpful when you're in the dentist's chair. Listen to your MP3 player during the appointment to block the noise from whatever your dentist is doing; that alone could go a long way towards reducing your anxiety. If you don't have your headphones, try singing a song in your head or try other pain management techniques such as deep breathing and visualisation. Picture: Steven Depolo/Flickr.

There's probably nothing we can do to make dentist and doctor appointments fun, but with a little planning and a few mind hacks, it is possible to make them less scary and painful.

Here's to a healthy new year!

Cheers Lifehacker

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    First world problem.

    How about "man up"? Or "woman up"?

      ^This. Going to a doctor or dentist is for your own good, so suck it up and just go. Yeah, I hate blood tests and needles, but when I have to have them I just get it over and done with.

        Totally agree with both of you...

        When I go to the dentist, I think to myself - booyeah getting me teeth all fancy for Satdi night!

        But seriously, a good private health plan covers most of the cost, and check ups are generally free, so yeah, man up, and do yourself some good.

        Mind you, I should really go to the doctor this decade (didn't go last one)

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