Ask the Dentist: Talking therapy can help beat fear

Dentist Lucy Stock of Gentle Dental Care in Belfast

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been successfully used to help overcome fear of the dentist
Lucy Stock

COGNITIVE behavioural therapy could help many people with a dental phobia to overcome their fear of visiting the dentist and enable them to receive dental treatment without the need to be sedated, according to a new study by King's College London.

Anxiety about visiting the dentist is common and becomes a phobia when it has a marked impact on someone's wellbeing. People with dental phobias typically avoid going to the dentist and end up experiencing more dental pain, poorer oral health and a detrimental effect on their quality of life. Estimates suggest that in the UK around one in 10 people suffers from dental phobia.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy which looks at how we think about a situation and how this affects the way we act. In turn our actions can affect how we think and feel. The therapist and client work together in changing the client’s behaviours, or their thinking patterns, or both of these. CBT has been shown to help with a range of psychological problems, most notably for depression and anxiety-related disorders.

This latest study looked at 130 patients attending a psychologist-led CBT service. Patients attending a clinic run by the King's College were surveyed for their levels of dental anxiety. Three-quarters of those assessed attained a score indicating dental phobia.

Fear of dental injections and the dental drill were the most common fears. Nearly all patients (94 per cent) reported a knock-on effect from problems with their teeth, mouth or gums on their daily living and quality of life. After CBT almost 80 per cent went on to have dental treatment without the need for sedation.

Professor Tim Newton from King's College, the lead author of the study, said: "People with dental phobia are most commonly given sedation to allow them to become relaxed enough for a short period of time to have their dental treatment performed. However, this does not help them to overcome their fear in the long term.

"Our study shows that after on average five CBT sessions, most people can go on to be treated by the dentist without the need to be sedated. But there will still be those who need sedation because they require urgent dental treatment or they are having particularly invasive treatments. Our service should be viewed as complementing sedation services rather than as an alternative."


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