Visiting a dentist is enough to make most people's palms a little sweaty, but for some it is a genuine and debilitating phobia.

And those most likely to suffer are women in their 40s, according to new Australian research.

The Sydney University study found women in that demographic were most likely to have a "perceived traumatic dental experience" that rendered them incapable of having a filling, extraction or even a routine check-up without general anesthetic or other sedation.

Lead researcher Dr. Avanti Karve said women were more likely to be predisposed to dental anxiety -- even if they hadn't had a bad experience in the chair.

"Dental anxiety is very real and complex and it should never be downplayed," she said.

"A recent survey found a person with severe dental anxiety waits on average 17 days to make an appointment when in severe pain, as opposed to three days in the remaining population."

For the past five years Karve has run the Dental Phobia Clinic at the Westmead Centre for Oral Health, comparing those with genuine psychological fears with those who simply have a healthy aversion to needles, drills and other sharp metal objects being thrust in their mouths.

With more medical research linking poor oral health with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, nutritional deficiencies and obesity, Karve said her study hoped to identify specific triggers of dental phobia -- eventually leading to a drug-free cure.

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