Temple University researchers are working on a way to make going to the dentist less stressful.

The Kornberg School of Dentistry is getting $2.59 million from the National Institutes of Health to study dental anxiety, the school announced Monday. The project, conducted in collaboration with the university's  psychology department, will fund a five-year clinical trial for 450 patients at Temple's Faculty Dental Practice in North Philadelphia.

Almost 20 percent of U.S. adults may be affected by severe anxiety when it comes to dental visits, said researcher Marisol Tellez Merchán, associate professor at the dental school and director of dental public health.

"Avoiding dental care leads to delayed treatments, which are typically more invasive. Our aim is to reduce anxiety, so patients can get the care they need," she said.

Temple researchers Marisol Tellez Merchán, associate professor at Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry, and Richard G. Heimberg, the Thaddeus L. Bolton professor of psychology in Temple’s College of Liberal Arts, with the program they developed to help patients who have dental anxiety.
Temple University
Temple researchers Marisol Tellez Merchán, associate professor at Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry, and Richard G. Heimberg, the Thaddeus L. Bolton professor of psychology in Temple’s College of Liberal Arts, with the program they developed to help patients who have dental anxiety.

The study is the brainchild of Amid Ismail, dean of the dental school, who brought the two departments together.

"You don't have to have a mental illness to be anxious," said researcher Richard G. Heimberg, the Thaddeus L. Bolton professor of psychology in Temple University's College of Liberal Arts. Anxiety is present in all human beings and — at appropriate levels — keeps people from engaging in reckless behavior, he said.

Dental phobia is more than just preferring to do something other than going to the dentist. Those who are too anxious to even make an appointment, or who schedule a visit but then fail to show up are likely suffering from dental anxiety or phobia.

Delaying dental care until the pain becomes unbearable means far more severe problems that need even more treatment, he said.

"If you want to find a patient with dental anxiety, go look in the [dental] emergency room," Heimberg said.

The study will use an online program that lets patients learn about anxiety-producing dental  procedures such as cleanings, X-rays, cavity fillings, root canals, injections and extractions so they will feel more comfortable if they need them.

The patient will choose which three topics to learn about and then watch three more videos per topic, each one getting a bit more detailed. The third video is from the perspective of a patient undergoing the procedure.

The idea is that the treatment for dental anxiety needs to "live in a dental office" where the patients are, said Heimberg. Ideally, dental assistants will have the appropriate training and guide patients through the program, he said.

"We make no pretense it will do away with anxiety, but it stops the train from running off the tracks," said Heimberg.