Pain at the Dentist

From the June 2014 Desktop News How can doctors make patients more comfortable during dental and other medical procedures? A University of Alabama alumnus recently received an award for exploring just such a topic.

Dan McNeil, a New College alumnus who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from UA, and a current faculty member at West Virginia University, was named a Claude Worthington Benedum Distinguished Scholar, an award that recognizes excellence in research at WVU. McNeil examines the pain that patients experience during dental procedures and the factors that can either increase or minimize that pain. He was given $5,000 of professional support as part of the award.

McNeil, a psychology professor at WVU, came to his current research focus, he says, from a desire to “understand the nature and function of anxiety, fear and pain from behavioral and cognitive-behavioral perspectives” and to “help patients be more comfortable during dental and medical procedures.” Work in this area, and specifically work aimed at developing and implementing assessments of pain and its relationship to fear and anxiety, led McNeil to behavioral dentistry.

“Dental and medical situations provide a natural laboratory for the ready observation of various states of emotional distress,” he explained.

The study of dental pain – and the related issues of dental phobias and anxiety – has also led McNeil to practical interventions in dental treatment practices to help reduce or eliminate patient distress, both at WVU and with the Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia. COHRA is a collaborative between WVU and the University of Pittsburgh, and recently the University of Michigan, which McNeil helped to develop more than 10 years ago. He has continued to be involved since it was founded.

The explicit mission of COHRA is to address the oral health problems of the people in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia. As a result of his involvement, McNeil has been the principal investigator or co-investigator on a number of funded grants from the National Institutes of Health, exploring psychosocial factors involved in oral health problems in families in Appalachia.

He has also widely published and presented findings of his research, both nationally and internationally.

“I hope that my research products have advanced the field and will improve quality of life in oral health and in health care generally,” McNeil said.