Anxious Patients - Are you worried about dental treatment?

Dental hygienists and oral health: Managing anxiety

Dental hygienists have an important role to play in patient care - and when it comes to paying a visit to the dentist, it is important to know that many patients may suffer from anxiety.

The way in which this anxiety is managed during visits to the dental practice could be crucial in fostering good oral health habits for years to come, according to researchers at the University of Otago, who point to a variety of personality characteristics that are common of people who face dental anxiety in a 2009 study.

Professor Murray Thompson of the university's department of oral sciences said that those who are anxious about visits to the dentists are generally "glass-half-empty" types who may have other fears, such as heights.

Dental anxiety, he said, goes deeper than a simple case of nervousness about sitting in a dental chair or undergoing a minor procedure. Anxious patients may be so worried about dental treatment that they choose to stay home altogether.

This, Thompson adds, is an even worse scenario. By choosing to avoid the dentist and neglect their oral health, these patients often don't see a dental health professional until serious work needs to be carried out - and this can be more costly and painful than regular maintenance and upkeep would have been.

"Usually, these people become more and more anxious through a vicious cycle of avoiding the dentist to the point where their dental condition becomes much worse," Thompson explains,

"They then require more unpleasant treatment options such as lancing an abscess, root canal treatment or a tooth extraction; and this reinforces their dental anxiety and makes it even less likely that they will attend the dentist next time they have a problem."

Overall, the dentally anxious patients were more likely to experience a larger number of instances of tooth decay than those that did not express such anxiety.

The key to managing dental anxiety, according to Thompson's research, may be for dental health professionals - including hygienists - to foster better habits in younger people, and to make going to the dentist a positive experience.

During his study, a small "recovery group" was observed - these individuals identified themselves as being anxious at the age of 15, but not at the age of 32.

"This gives the dental profession a good understanding of what makes people dentally anxious, and to be mindful that some people can grow out of it," he said.

Thompson was presented with the prestigious H Trendley Dean Memorial Award for his contributions to dentistry by the International Association for Dental Research in 2010.

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