Researchers Take Aim at the Root Cause of Dental Fear

Managing patient fear is a routine part of dentistry, but a new study is looking at how this phobia takes root and ways to prevent it.

By Genni Burkhart

Recent studies tell us that approximately 36% of the population, or 40 million Americans, suffer from some form of dental fear or dental anxiety.

This anxiety creates a barrier to oral healthcare and becomes increasingly more significant when complete avoidance of dental care happens, impacting the quality of one's life. Pain is unnecessarily tolerated, there's avoidance of food, eating, and activities ­– all to avoid the dental chair, whatever the cost.

As dentists, addressing fear and anxiety is as integral to treating patients as it is for a psychologist to understand their patient's past trauma. To better understand the decision-making of patients, new research on dental fear is being headed by leading psychologists in Ohio and Texas.

The Science of Decision Making

Dr. Andrew Geers, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Toledo, wants to know why these phobias take root and influence oral health. "It can be a real problem," he states in a news release by UToledo. He continues to explain that it's not only about avoidance but also about the negative experience people often have due to heightened anxiety once they do go. This creates a vicious cycle they cannot escape. Relatively, Dr. Geers's research interests include the initiation and maintenance of health beliefs and behavior decision-making.

Dr. Geers is partnering with Dr. Laura Seligman, Ph.D., a colleague at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, to conduct a study funded by the National Institute of Dental & Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) aimed at answering why dental fears set in and how to keep them from taking a toll on the oral health of those who suffer from them. Dr. Seligman was also recently elected president of the National Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT).

The three-year grant is for $1.28 million, giving UToledo a $419,920 share. Dr. Geers and Dr. Seligman will be leading the study with collaboration from researchers at Wayne State, Arizona State, and the University of Sydney in Australia.

Initially, the study will use virtual reality simulations to create a new environment for a more scientific understanding of how quickly fears and anxieties are learned and developed. Researchers will track and measure participants' reactions as they encounter events associated with those fears and anxieties, as well as the physiological markers associated with them.

Dr. Geers explains that there's still a lot of unknowns regarding those initial moments when anxiety takes hold. Through virtual reality simulations, valuable data can be gathered in a controlled environment that's remarkably realistic.

Researchers hope that from these findings, they'll be able to better formulate targeted interventions that will directly address the most harmful dental fears. "There are lots of psychological and medical treatments that can be used to treat dental fear and phobia," Dr. Geers continues in the UToledo news release. Researchers will look at specific ways to prevent the development of dental fears in the first place, having the potential to help a large amount of the population by removing the fear factor from how they make oral health decisions.

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In Conclusion

Dental phobia, also called odontophobia, is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a legitimate disease in and of itself. Since the 1960s, despite our revolution of technology and advances in the dental operatory, fear isn't decreasing – it's actually rising. Therefore it makes sense that scientific interest on the subject of fear has increased over the decades as clinicians seek a deeper understanding of its role in the behavior of dental patients.

Like it or not, the topic of fear is closely related to dentistry. Awareness of this is among the many skills required to become a good dentist, and the understanding of fear and how to best treat it has become ever more paramount as treatments and technologies continue to evolve.

 

Author: With over 11 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart's career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, and news. She resides on the western shores of the Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

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