Connecting mind and mouth

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  Posted by: Dental Design      30th January 2024

There is much work happening right now to connect the mouth and body, promoting a more integrated approach to health. In particular, dental professionals may be interested to know more about how the mind and body interact, and how psychological science can be used to motivate behaviour change in patients.

Theodora (Teddie) Little has combined her love of dentistry, public education and academia to develop a career within this area. Having worked as a dental nurse and a dental hygienist/therapist in practice, she has diversified her focus into the fields of psychology and neuro science. She explains:

“The goal of all my work is to connect the mouth and mind, to explore the relationship between oral health and human behaviour. As dental professionals, I feel that delivering oral hygiene instructions is only a small part of the puzzle. I invite professionals to consider the personal journey of the patient, acknowledge the environment in which they are living and understand how these aspects will impact their general, dental and mental health. Maslow’s hierarchy[i] explains this with a five-tier model of human needs which must be met from the bottom up – physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation. Needs in the lower tiers must be met before advancing to the next tiers. The tiers can also be connected to oral health and dental needs. This is demonstrated in the dental pyramids, where the motivation of the patient coincides with the needs that are not being met in the world around them.

“Wanting to know more about this is what led me into psychology and neuro science. I am blessed to have been able to work in every sector in dentistry. This experience has been instrumental to my research into the science behind behaviour change and its link to oral health and prevention. I maintain my clinical work to ensure that my study into the mind behind the patient remains relevant and applicable in the real-world. As I am currently living in Nicaragua, I also provide oral health education and participate in social projects in very rural communities, which gives me another perspective.”

Of course, for dental professionals in the UK, the high-pressure environment in which dentistry is delivered can make it difficult to introduce anything new to a patient appointment. Teddie acknowledges this:

“The type of practice professionals work in will influence the challenges they face when attempting to ignite behaviour change in patients. It is incredibly difficult, if at all possible, to deliver oral health and prevention education within the confines of short appointments and amongst high dental need. I am trying to help colleagues change the focus during appointments for suitable patients to overcome these issues in the long-run.”

Teddie explored this topic at the recent Oral Health Conference and here discusses some of the key takeaways that she is keen to share with colleagues:

“For prevention to become a priority, we need to consider the priming and perception to enable behaviour change towards it. This, of course, depends on what is the priority for that patient at that moment. For dental hygiene sessions, oral hygiene education and demonstration should be an integral part. However, the patient has been trained and now expects for this to be a small part of the session often left to the end of the appointment. To change this perception, then start with the long-term priority. This holds a psychological narrative and ensures that the preventive part is delivered when both patient and practitioner are most attentive, also creating space for neurological priming and then processing during the intraoral treatment.

“Another aspect to priming is considering the questions we ask our patients before a session. By designing some specifically to learn more about them as a person, and their background we can gain a better all-round picture of our patient and be able to tailor our approach to their dental care and prevention.

“In addition, the oral hygiene products that patients use, and how they use them, will impact their health too. I’ve been using Curaprox manual toothbrushes for as many years as I can remember and am a huge fan. I mostly recommend manual toothbrushes to my patients as a way of reconnecting the mouth and body in a more mindful way. They encourage patients to pay more attention to their technique. In particular, I recommend the CS 5460 toothbrush as I find it to be extremely gentle but effective. Other solutions I like include the Curaprox interdental brushes which have the added benefit of being environmentally-friendly with lifetime handles that only require replacement tips.

“During sessions I utilise mirroring techniques with my patients, for a variety of reasons. Studies have shown that to learn a skill that involves motor acts, mirror neurones will provide an easier and more fluid learning process when observing an individual doing the same act. You will find me brushing with my patients, and I encourage my colleagues to be open to this learning union also.”

Ultimately, Teddie is an advocate for taking a more holistic approach to oral health and prevention, utilising concepts from other fields of science to enhance behaviour change in dental patients. She concludes:

“Our patients are human beings with needs and stories that go beyond their dental health. By considering and learning as much as possible from them, we can then tailor our preventive approach more successfully. If prevention is the priority, then prioritise prevention – begin with the revolution. Once patient perception begins to change, then behaviour change will follow with more ease.”

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[i] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

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