"Smile for Life: A Guide to Overcoming Your Fear of the Dentist" (Greenleaf Book Group, $12.95) is aimed at the 30 to 40 million "dental phobics" in this country who, according to the author, are letting outdated or false beliefs jeopardize their general health (there is a known link between heart disease and dental decay).


James K. Bahcall is a Chicago-based endodontist (root canal specialist) and chairman of the Department of Surgical Sciences at the Marquette University School of Dentistry in Milwaukee. He is also the son of a phobic -- his mom -- who he says once asked him, "Why would you want to go into a field that hurts people?"


Bahcall displays a real empathy and an earnest belief in his message that fear of pain and fear of cost are poor excuses for avoiding the dentist's chair. His clear explanations of the purpose of root canal and advances that have made drilling far less onerous than a middle-aged phobic might remember are fairly persuasive. . . .


. . . and not quite persuasive at the same time. Bahcall does a good job of dispelling the notion that dental X-rays are harmful to patients and the assertions of some holistic health care providers that root canal work can lead to infections in other parts of the body, but he leaves the issue of cost largely undiscussed.


Bahcall's slim and highly readable book may persuade some dental phobics, but in a section urging against general anesthesia for routine care, he suggests that for the hard cases, seeking therapy to deal with the fear and anxiety "would be a far more productive way to spend your money."