It is a prospect that fills most of us with as much fear as a horror movie – the dreaded trip to the dentist.From the sound of the drill to the smell of the antiseptic, there is plenty to send shivers down one’s spine. And for as many as one in five adults, it is claimed, the thought is so scary that they never book a check-up.
Now help is at hand – in the form of counselling. For scientists claim that people who are terrified of the dentist can overcome their phobia by undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy.
It has been shown to help four in five patients with a severe phobia to have dental treatment without the need for sedation. They were able to conquer their fear after an average of five sessions. Psychologists studied 31 men and 99 women attending a specialist cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) service for people terrified of dental injections and drills.
Nearly all had suffered problems with their teeth, mouth or gums as a result of avoiding the dentist.
CBT seeks to overcome problems such as anxiety and depression by changing habits of thought and behaviour. It uses a strategy similar to that used in the popular ‘mindfulness’ technique – making people much more aware of their thoughts and feelings and how they react to them.
Of those treated at the clinic, run by King’s College London Dental Institute’s health psychology service, 79 per cent went on to have treatment without needing to be sedated. A further 6 per cent were able to brave the dentist, but only after sedation, the researchers report in the British Dental Journal.
Professor Tim Newton, who led the King’s College team, 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. The primary goal of our CBT service is to enable patients to receive dental treatment without the need for sedation. 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.’
People with dental phobia had to be carefully assessed by trained CBT practitioners working with dental health professionals, he said. Three-quarters of the patients had anxiety assessment scores indicating general dental phobia. The rest appeared to have specific fears about certain aspects of dentistry, such as drills or injections.
A large proportion also had other psychological problems, the researchers found – 37 per cent had high levels of general anxiety, 12 per cent were clinically depressed and 12 per cent reported suicidal thoughts.
Professor Newton said: ‘CBT provides a way of reducing the need for sedation in people with a phobia, 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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