Oral Surgery Doesn’t Have to Scare You

An expert at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine offers tips for minimizing the fear and discomfort of oral and maxillofacial surgeryincluding staying off YouTube

No one wants to undergo surgery, of course, but there’s a kind of surgery that might cause particular distress for some individuals, especially for those who suffer from odontophobia (a.k.a. fear of dental surgery): oral and maxillofacial surgery.

Whether it’s because of wisdom-tooth extraction, cancer, congenital deformation, or injury correction, individuals who require this category of procedure can find themselves deeply unhappy about their situation, anxious about how best to take care of themselves, and uncertain about the future. As Professor Maria Papageorge, chair of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and associate dean of hospital affairs at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, puts it, “Many, if not most—if not all—patients are very scared when it comes to these surgeries.”

Maria Papageorge, Professor and Chair of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

Maria Papageorge, professor and chair of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. Photo: Alonso Nichols

But Papageorge, who is also an attending surgeon and chair of the Department of Dentistry at Tufts Medical Center, says that patients can take steps to prepare themselves for oral surgeries—and that preparation is the key to ensuring a smooth process: “I tell all of my patients, ‘The more you know, the better it’s going to be.’ As health professionals, we’re not trying to scare patients with information; it’s just that when you’re prepared for something, when you know what’s going to happen, it reduces the anxiety level, and it goes more smoothly.”

Here are Papageorge’s top tips for preparing yourself for oral and maxillofacial surgery—and for minimizing anxiety, distress, and fear surrounding the process.

Ask questions. Talking to your doctors is the first thing you should do—and the best way to get reliable information. “I tell my patients, ‘Please don’t look at YouTube,’” says Papageorge. “Of course, they can, but if they have questions, they should ask us. We have the experience of having seen many patients going through similar procedures; we know what their postoperative course is, and we can relay this information to the patient effectively. The Internet has a wealth of information—but sometimes that scares patients more.”

“We tell our patients that, postoperatively, they should not be taking care of someone else–they should be taken care of.”

Maria Papageorge

Talk to others who have been through it, too. Sometimes former patients are a good source of information about how a procedure will go and what the post-operative experience is like, Papageorge says. “With orthognathic surgery [reconstructive surgery of the jaws], because it’s extensive and there’s a fairly long post-operative course, we ask patients who have already had the surgery to speak with prospective patients. That way, they at least have reassurance from a real person who has seen the same surgeon or been through the same institution.” If your doctor doesn’t proactively offer the opportunity to speak with a former patient, ask if that might be an option.

Gather food and other supplies you might need during recovery. Oral and maxillofacial surgery patients often have a particular need to consider what they’ll eat after their procedures, Papageorge points out. “What patients can eat after is a very important question. These procedures usually require a diet of soft foods for some period of time,” she says. “It can be comforting for patients to know they have the necessary items at home and ready to go.”

Make logistical arrangements for after the procedure. As with any surgery, there are a number of elements to think through when it comes to oral and maxillofacial surgery post-treatment. First of all, consider the rules for patients undergoing general anesthesia or sedation. You can’t eat or drink anything for six to eight hours prior to surgery, so plan accordingly. Also: no driving for 24 hours after the surgery.

If you are a parent of young children or a caretaker of others, you’ll need to plan ahead to ensure that the needs of those who depend on you are met while you’re recovering. “We tell our patients that, postoperatively, they should not be taking care of someone else–they should be taken care of,” offered Papageorge.

Ask for help. Most hospitals and outpatient offices will require an escort to take you home after your procedure. Consider what family members or friends you can rely on to pick you up—and also, crucially, to stay with you for a little while. “I think it helps every patient after surgery to have some emotional support at home,” Papageorge said. “Even after less extensive surgeries—multiple tooth extractions, say—the diet is still affected, there’s still pain. And there’s still the need for reassurance and security.” Also, patients might experience side effects from painkillers or a general reaction to anesthesia or the procedure, so it’s useful to have someone to rely on if you’re experiencing nausea, vomiting, or other symptoms. In other words, don’t go it alone—doctor’s orders.

Back to Top