New study lets children chat and play away their dental anxiety

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden have developed an accessible therapy for children and adolescents suffering from dental anxiety. The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, shows that a playful exercise package in combination with a guided Internet-based CBT was highly effective in reducing anxiety and increasing the ability to deal with dental treatment. One year later, half the children were completely free of their phobia.

Dental anxiety, also called odontophobia, dentophobia or dental phobia, is a common fear in most Western cultures. It is estimated that as many as 75% of US adults experience some degree of dental fear, from mild to severe.

Dental anxiety often begins in childhood or adolescence, and can develop into a phobia with avoidance, strong negative feelings and thoughts aimed at dental care. Avoidance of dental care often leads to poor oral health, untreated caries or other dental problems. That’s why it is vital to start treating this anxiety or fear as early as possible.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for most forms of specific phobia. However, with regard to children and adolescents with dental phobia, there are organizational, financial and geographic obstacles to providing such therapy. Researchers in this study have therefore developed an Internet-based CBT treatment that they have tested in an open, uncontrolled study of 18 patients between the ages of 8 and 15.

Alleviate dental anxiety – play dentist at home

During the study, participants used an Internet platform to obtain weekly online guidance from a psychologist via a chat system. Treatment continued for 12 weeks and included texts, animations and dental-related video clips. The treatment also included an exercise package with a dental mirror, probe, local anesthetic and cannula delivered to the home of the child/parent(s) with detailed instructions for the exercises. Through therapy and guidance from the psychologist, the home-based exercises were linked to real exposure and training visits to dental clinics around Sweden.

53% were free from their dental phobia

The results show a statistically and clinically significant increase in the children’s ability to handle dental treatment. The Internet-based CBT also increased children’s and parents’ self-efficacy, led to fewer negative thoughts, and reduced anxiety about dental treatment. 15 children attended the 1-year follow up visit, where 53% were found to be completely free from their dental phobia.

Do you experience dental anxiety among your patients? How do you deal with this issue at your practice? Leave a comment or discuss with your colleagues.

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