17 Mar

New study will examine whether cognitive behavioural therapy can benefit children suffering from dental anxiety

A pioneering new study will examine whether children who experience dental anxiety could benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

Researchers at the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals will investigate the impact of using resources based on CBT for children who suffer from severe dental anxiety. The team of researchers, which will be based at the University of Sheffield’s School of Clinical Dentistry, has been awarded a grant worth £1.6 million from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). 

It is estimated that up to a third of children experience dental anxiety. Fear of going to the dentist can contribute to avoidance of appointments, poor oral hygiene and an increased risk of dental infections, decay and premature tooth loss. 

The study will involve a group of 600 children from 30 dental practices located across England and Wales. The aim will be to investigate the potential benefits of “specially-developed, child-friendly resources” and resources for parents and dental teams, which are based on CBT. It is hoped that the approach will enable more children to undergo treatment at local practices rather than having to go to hospital for treatment under sedation or general anaesthetic. 

Professor Zoe Marshman, principal investigator, explained that dental anxiety, a common fear in children, can increase the risk of poor oral health. Traditionally, children who experience severe anxiety are referred to hospitals for specialist treatment under sedation or general anaesthetic. This new study will examine the impact of alternative measures, which could help children to overcome anxiety while also enabling them to have treatment in a family-friendly practice setting. 

The new approach is based on CBT, a talking therapy, which will help dentists, parents and children to work together to determine why a child is anxious, to provide information to reassure them and answer questions and to utilise resources and targeted activities to help them feel confident, comfortable and relaxed. Prof Marshman suggested that CBT offers many benefits for anxiety in adults and other mental health disorders, but there is little research linked to CBT for dental anxiety.