Children who are afraid of dentists need therapy, say scientists

Children who are afraid of going to the dentist suffer from “dental anxiety” and need

Children who are afraid of going to the dentist suffer from “dental anxiety” and need therapy, scientists have said. 

Zoe Marshman, professor in dental public health at the University of Sheffield, said that a new treatment method for “dentally anxious children” was “desperately needed”, as a £1.6-million research programme into the issue was announced. 

University researchers have been given the funding to examine whether a talk-based therapy programme can cure dental anxiety, which they said around one third of children in the UK suffer from. 

The university has been given the funding by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), to check whether cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) makes children less scared of approaching the dentist’s chair. Six hundred children from 30 dental practices in England and Wales will take part in a study encouraging them to confront their fears. 

Sixty dentists will be involved in the study, named CALM, which will begin in September and is scheduled to continue for four years. It will be overseen by the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. 

The process will involve child participants being given access to hard copy and online resources about dentistry, and then being told information about dental procedures. Further activities aiming to make discussions between children and their dentists easier will be designed and tested. 

The NHS describes CBT as “talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave,” and says that is most commonly used to treat anxiety or depression. 

Beyond helping children avoid tooth-related terror, Prof Marshman said that the aim of developing the treatment methods was to reduce reliance on NHS hospitals. She added that with fewer children suffering from dental anxiety, fewer would need dental work undertaken in hospital rather than at dentistry clinics. 

Last year 3.6 million children in the UK – almost 30 per cent of the child population – were seen by an NHS dentist. 

“Dental anxiety is very common in children, and can lead to poor oral health, more tooth decay and extractions,” Prof Marshman said. “Traditionally, children with dental anxiety have been referred by high street dentists to specialist services for sedation or general anaesthetic.  

“This approach does nothing to stop their fear, and they may go on to spend a lifetime avoiding the dentist. A simple and cost-effective way of helping dentally anxious children is desperately needed.” 

The NHS website states that “CBT is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle. 

“CBT aims to help you deal with overwhelming problems in a more positive way by breaking them down into smaller parts. You’re shown how to change these negative patterns to improve the way you feel.” 

Prof Marshman said: “If our study finds CBT resources delivered by dental professionals are effective, then children can be helped directly in high street dental practices without the need to travel for dental treatment in hospitals. 

“This has the potential to help children who may otherwise spend a lifetime avoiding the dentist and ignoring potentially serious oral problems. It may also result in cost savings for the NHS.” 

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