Here’s the drill: Dental offices use spa treatments to ease tension


HILTON HEAD, S.C. – Judi Burhans used to dread going to the dentist.

The needles. The drills. The pain. The Novocain.

“I don’t like the dentist very well,” said the 57-year-old Hilton Head Island, S.C., resident. “I mean, my dentist is wonderful, but just going to his office makes me nervous.”

Things are a bit better now.

Earlier this year, her dentist’s office – like a growing number of others throughout the country – began offering spa-like treatments to make the dental experience a little more palatable for squeamish patients.

While a dentist performs a root canal or drills away at tooth decay, patients can relax with a paraffin hand and foot treatment.

After a routine checkup, patients can check in to a private room for a $55 hand-and-arm massage, a $20 eyebrow waxing or a $125 anti-aging facial.

“Of course, it will take my mind off the dental care,” Burhans said. “It’s wonderful. I would recommend it to anyone because it’s so relaxing.”

Dr. James Canham, Burhans’ dentist and owner of Southern Smiles on Hilton Head Island, added spa services in February. The idea came from his long-time dental hygienist, Elizabeth Kirby, who went to aesthetician school last fall.

After reading about practices that successfully incorporated spa-like treatments with routine dental care, Canham and Kirby partnered to create a new company called Absolute Skincare that operates in the same office.

It’s created a new niche for the business. Canham originally thought the skin care practice would find customers among his patients. But after a few months, he’s found that Kirby’s skin care treatments are bringing him new patrons.

“We’re always looking at new things to offer patients that improve their experience,” said Canham. “A lot of people are afraid of the dentist. The spa portion has really helped that part of it.”

About a quarter of U.S. adults avoid dental visits because they fear pain or have had a bad experience, according to data from the American Dental Association.

To ease patient fears and make them more comfortable, some offices began several years ago offering things like television, headphones, neck pillows, warm towels and other small perks.

In South Carolina, the boutique dental practice is a relatively new phenomena, said Phil Latham, executive director of the South Carolina Dental Association.

“I’ve heard of practices adding certain amenities, but this is the first time I’ve heard about this,” he said.

According to a 2004 ADA/Colgate survey, amenities such as massages, facials, pedicures and manicures are offered by less than 5 percent of dental practices nationwide.

Southern Smiles might be the only area dental office to offer skin care services like facials and collagen treatments, but it’s not alone in the movement to make patients feel more comfortable.

Dr. Tudor Dragulescu’s Hilton Head office recently finished an extensive remodeling that added softer lighting, warm paint tones, flat-screen televisions and even a waterfall in the reception area stocked with fish and lily pads.

Dental assistants and office workers were outfitted with new solid-color uniforms similar to those found in traditional spas.

“We’re really trying to take the tension away from patients so they don’t feel like they’re going to the dentist,” said Stacy Dragulescu, the office’s chief financial officer. “We want them to feel like they’re stepping into their own living room.”

Soothing ocean breezes and jazz music are pumped through the sound system, and patients have the option to use herbal eye masks and massaging foot pads during their treatments.

When dental work is complete, patients are given warmed towels, organic lip balm and sugar-free breath mints.

“It’s still kind of a trial period – because this is all so new and not that many people are doing it. We’re trying to figure out what our patients really like,” Stacy Dragulescu said. “But we realize that this is definitely the trend for the future.”