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How beneficial is CBT to people with a severe dental phobia and how long-lasting can the benefits be? A new study claims to have the answers…

New research suggests that severe dental phobia can be successfully reduced by just one session of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a treatment which tries to identify and directly change thoughts that may be affecting behaviour.

The results of the study, entitled ‘A joint approach to treating dental phobia’, were published in the British Dental Journal on August 26th 2011 and will provide thought-provoking reading material for nervous patients in dental waiting rooms.

Of course, many Britons are too nervous to even make it to the waiting room – severe dental phobia is the reason so many of us delay or cancel vital dental appointments; further putting our oral health at risk.

Putney dentist Ethicare acknowledges the common existence of severe dental phobia by running a nervous patient program which offers extra help (such as nitrous oxide gas and intravenous sedation) to patients who have a pronounced state of anxiety about receiving treatment.

According to the British Dental Association, around 12 per cent of the UK population suffers from extreme dental anxiety – an anxiety which can stem from factors like bad childhood experiences of dental treatment and a lack of awareness about how pain-free modern treatment has become.

The study

The latest dental phobia survey began ten years ago when 21 patients who exhibited severe dental phobia were offered CBT to alleviate their anxieties.

All had previously needed intravenous (IV) sedation in order to cope with dental treatment. Twenty of the 21 patients were subsequently able to have dental treatment without IV sedation.

A decade later, 19 of these 20 patients were available for a follow-up questionnaire. None of these had needed IV sedation to cope with dental treatment during the intervening years.

Dr Paul Blenkiron, a consultant psychiatrist with a special interest in CBT at Bootham Park Hospital in York, was “delighted to hear about the research”.

He said: “This study on overcoming dental phobia adds to a growing body of research evidence. It shows that if people are prepared to confront their fears, the effect of CBT can be long lasting.”

Dr Blenkiron points out that CBT is an effective treatment for a wide range of common problems such as phobias, anxiety and depression; a reason why there are calls for this form of psychological treatment to be more widely available in the UK.

About CBT

So, how does CBT therapy differ from counselling like psychotherapy? The NHS Choices website stresses that CBT concentrates on the problems and anxieties you have now, rather than issues from your past.

CBT aims to allow you to open up about how you think about yourself, the world around you and other people.  A CBT session should also let you talk about how the actions you take influence your thoughts and feelings.

By entering a constructive dialogue about these things, CBT aims to help you alter the way you think (the ‘cognitive’ side) and what you do (‘behaviour’).

CBT does not purport to remove problems but can help people manage them in a more positive way.

Alternative anxiety-management methods

Commenting on the latest research, Dr Glafcos Tombolis, who runs London dental practice Ethicare, said: “Anything which can be done to help a nervous patient and avoid the need to give them an anxiety-relieving drug or sedation has to be a good thing.

Dr Tombolis added: “Of course, there are other ways of managing anxiety which can be explored. We find that taking things slowly with nervous patients – and making sure they are fully informed about the treatment they are receiving – can be of great benefit.”

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