M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Marta Schrader, left, and Tonya Abeln, enjoy champagne as they wait for their dental appointments at The Mitchell Dental Spa on Monday, Jan, 29 in Chicago.
updated 2/8/2007 1:17:42 PM ET 2007-02-08T18:17:42

When you think of relaxation, chances are dental drills and Novocain needles don’t come to mind.

So it seems odd to see “dental spa” written across the clear glass doors of a dentist’s office in Chicago’s tony Water Tower building, and to hear soothing classical music as you lie on a cushy massaging reclining chair while the hygienist readies her tooth scraper.

It may seem odd, but it’s getting more and more common. Spa dentistry is a growing niche carved out by tooth doctors trying to take the bite out of going to the dentist.

At the Mitchell Dental Spa in Chicago, patients are offered a flat-screen TVs to watch while the dentist is drilling, not to mention 10-minute spa treatments, including cooling eye masks and back massages by an on-staff massage therapist — all free with usual dental care.

“If you have to have a dental procedure, nobody’s looking forward to it. If we can create an environment so people can relax, have something to eat... give them a back massage afterward, I think we can start to turn it around and make it a really positive experience,” said Dr. Margaret Mitchell, who turned her regular practice into a dental spa a few months ago.

How about a tingly peppermint foot scrub while having your fillings replaced? That’s offered at The Hills Dental Spa in Austin, Texas, where amenities also include herbal teas and lavender aromatherapy candles to disguise that medicinal dental office smell.

Hot wax mittens during root canals are available at New York City’s Manhattan Dental Spa. For $95 extra, the Madison Avenue office last year began offering acupuncture by a trained hygienist, for relaxation during dental procedures.

American Dental Association data suggest that about one-fourth of U.S. adults avoid dental visits because of fear of pain or a previous bad experience. To make the experience more comfortable, dentists several years ago began offering things like television and headphones. Spa services are an extension of that trend, said Dr. Matthew Messina, a dental association spokesman.

An association poll of 427 U.S. dentists in 2004 found that about half offered services including headphones, neck rests, warm towels and free snacks, while about 5 percent offered more spa-like amenities such as massages, facials and manicures.

'I felt very posh'
The Internet and a move toward more marketing and patient-centered care in dentistry and medicine has helped the spa trend catch on, Messina said.

Some dentists have taken the spa concept a step further, opening their offices to skin specialists offering Botox and other cosmetic procedures, Messina said.

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“If the patient is more relaxed and the dentist is more relaxed, then it really is a kind of win-win situation.” Still, he added: “Fundamentally, the dentistry has to be well-done or the rest of it is just all smoke and mirrors.”

Damian Clark, 24, an account manager for an online company and a new Mitchell patient, said his first visit to the Chicago office was an eye-opener, with its blond wood floors, refreshment bar and cool, airy decor.

“It was shocking to me at first because it’s totally not something I’m used to at all. I felt very posh,” Clark said. He said all the distractions made a recent painful gum procedure almost pleasurable.

“I’ve been referring my friends,” Clark said.

That kind of free advertising is part of the point of offering a spa-like environment, said Dr. Mitchell Charnas of the Manhattan Dental Spa. Charnas said patient referrals at his office have increased substantially since he began offering spa services about two years ago.

“The biggest thing is you want people to get referrals, to talk well of you,” Charnas said.

Still, not all patients want to be pampered.

“There’s a pretty good mix of America that just wants the dentistry done and to get it over with,” Messina said.

He said his own dental office, in Fairview Heights, Ohio, offers TVs in treatment rooms and an airy decor, but no spa services.

“I’m not a big foot massage guy, personally,” Messina said.

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