Switching to a new dentist can be a little anxiety-inducing, particularly if you’d rather not spend your day having your mouth cleaned. The first dentist visit is usually a low-key affair. Some dentists even use the first visit as a simple meet-and-greet, saving dental work for a later visit. Try calling your dentist ahead of time to ask what to expect. Doing so allows you to schedule your time more efficiently, and it can also ease anxiety.

Paperwork and Records

Ask your old dentist to send your records to your new dentist a week or so ahead of the appointment. You can also pick up a copy yourself if your dentist is local. If you were unhappy with your previous dentist, you might be concerned about getting your records. Dentists have an ethical and legal obligation to provide patient records, even when the relationship ends badly. You might have to pay the costs of copying or retrieving the records. If you owe money on a bill or payment plan, however, you aren’t required to pay it before accessing your records. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay — just that medical records belong to you, and they are a separate matter from any debt you owe the dentist.

Even if you provide copies of your dental records, you’ll probably have to complete a detailed medical history form. Be honest, even if the questions seem odd or intrusive. Your dentist is obligated to keep your answers confidential. Clear, specific information can help your dentist assess your dental health risk factors, and may even change treatment options. For instance, people with risk factors for a heart infection may need to take antibiotics before dental work.

If you are concerned about the price of dental care, call your insurer to find out what exactly they cover, and discuss any lingering financial concerns with your dentist before your appointment. The office may be able to give you an estimate, adopt strategies to minimize costs, or agree to let you pay off the cost of the appointment over time.

A Chance to Discuss Concerns

The dentist or a hygienist will meet with you before examining you. Many dentists now conduct this meeting in an office rather than the exam chair, which helps foster a conversation between equals and can ease any fears you might have. Discuss your concerns with your dentist, and ask any questions you might have about your dental health or today’s treatment plan.

Some topics you might wish to discuss include:

  • Dental anxiety: Are you worried about treatment, afraid of pain, or embarrassed about your teeth? Mention these concerns. The right dentist for you is one who takes these issues seriously, and who devises a strategy to ease your fears without making you feel embarrassed.
  • Mouth pain: Does any part of your mouth hurt? Are your teeth or gums sensitive? Have you experienced any changes in pain lately?
  • Pain in your neck, face, or jaw: Jaw misalignment, tooth grinding, and other oral health issues can cause muscle pain and tension.
  • Any specific treatment philosophies: Do you prefer that your dentist use a particular type of toothpaste? Do you want to be sedated? Discuss any special needs. Not all dentists are prepared to work with all patients, so highlighting your preferences at the outset can help you ensure you’ve found a good fit.

A Dental Exam

Whether you see the dentist for a routine cleaning or a particular issue, the dentist will examine your mouth. They will look at your teeth for obvious problems, check for pain and sensitivity, and examine your gums for signs of inflammation and redness. They may also check your jaw and the muscles that support it.

For emergency dental appointments, the dentist may limit the exam only to the problem area. Because problems in one part of the mouth can trigger issues in another, however, most dentists will examine the whole mouth even if you’re only concerned about a single area.

A Thorough Cleaning (Usually)

Regular dental cleanings — including removing plaque, flossing, and a deep cleaning — can preserve your oral health and keep your teeth looking their best. Routine dental visits almost always include a cleaning. If you have dental anxiety, however, the dentist might delay the cleaning until the next visit. Some dentists even offer cleanings under sedation or laughing gas.

Depending on the state of your teeth, a cleaning can take from 15-45 minutes. You might feel a little sensitivity, particularly if your gums are irritated. The cleaning should not hurt, and you should tell the hygienist if you experience any pain.

X-Rays as Necessary

Some dentists routinely perform X-rays at every visit. They can help the dentist visualize the health of the gum tissue and the bone that supports the teeth. However, annual X-rays may not be necessary. Discuss with your dentist whether the additional expense of X-rays is worth it. You might choose to get X-rays every other year, or only when you have a dental issue.

During an X-ray, the dentist will probably cover you with a lead vest to protect your vital and reproductive organs. You’ll bite down on gauze or plastic devices called bitewings. Doing so can put some pressure on your gums that may be painful if you have a cavity or gum disease. The discomfort is fleeting, and X-rays take less than a minute.

For some people, particularly women who are pregnant or who are trying to become pregnant, the radiation from X-rays poses some risks. Tell your dentist if you are pregnant, and talk to your obstetrician or midwife about whether X-rays are safe for you at this stage of pregnancy.

Expert Advice for Your First Appointment With A New Dentist

We asked dentist and orthodontist Bill Crutchfield, DDS, to answer some of our questions about switching to a new dentist or visiting a new dental specialist for the first time. In an email interview, Dr. Crutchfield gave the following tips:

1. What is the best way to prepare for your first visit with a new dentist?

“When it comes to the day of your appointment, don't go overboard with brushing — we know if you've been brushing regularly or not. Destroying your gums immediately before an appointment isn't going to make up for months of neglect. Make sure you've already sent any relevant medical records; however, be prepared that in an office like ours, we have 3-D x-ray technology that we may want to use to get a better view of your mouth to give you the best, most accurate treatment plan.”

2. What is the best way to choose a new dentist for your needs?

“It's important for patients to do their research. I tell people to check out our reviews online. Some people love us, but in reality, not everyone is going to be happy with us. Either way, it's important for people to hear from other patients what their experience was, so they know what to expect. A digital presence is crucial nowadays. Do your homework as the patient to see if the doctor you're choosing has committed to maintaining an up to date presence.”

3. What are the most important questions/discussion topics to have with your new dentist?

“As an Orthodontist, I tell patients that it's crucial for them to keep their braces clean throughout treatment and that if they are experiencing discomfort, they can come back for cold laser treatment with our technology, TruDenta. It's a nice additional treatment option to relieve soreness and swelling. The other topic I talk about with patients is how to help them have the most successful and fast treatment by protecting their teeth and braces by not eating inappropriate foods.”

Visiting a new dentist or dental specialist is a lot like beginning a new relationship. It can be awkward at first until you get to know one another. Invest a little effort in honesty and open communication, and you’ll have a strong healthcare ally. Dental health can affect virtually every system of your body, so don’t neglect this important component of your well-being. Make an appointment with your dentist — or find a new provider — today!