UCL Faculty of Medical Sciences


Meet The Expert: Ian Needleman

8 July 2020

Ian Needleman is Professor of Periodontology and Evidence-Informed Healthcare at UCL Eastman Dental Institute and Honorary Consultant in Periodontology with UCLH. He is a clinical specialist in periodontics at UCL and in specialist practice at PerioLondon.

Ian Needleman

Ian Needleman leads the Centre for Oral Health and Performance (COHP) which has been awarded recognition by the International Olympic Committee as a research centre in collaboration with the Institute of Sport Exercise and Health and the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine.

His research has been awarded prizes by the European Federation of Periodontology, Royal Society of Medicine, German Periodontal Society, German Cochrane Centre and International Association for Dental Research. Ian was nominated as an inspiring teacher at UCL in 2007 and received the UCL Provost’s Award for Leadership in Public Engagement in 2017.

Ian was a member of the International Olympic Committee, Scientific Committee for the 2014 Conference on Prevention of Injury and Illness in Monaco.

Ian leads research into investigating oral health to enhance performance, overall health and the wellbeing of athletes and the general population. His team engages in research collaborating with a wide range of clinical and academic disciplines and stakeholders – as well as working with athletes, sport and exercise medical professionals and sports organisations. Over the last few years, Ian’s work looking at fine-tuning athletic performance through good oral health has seen him working with teams such as GB cycling and rowing as well as rugby clubs – and has been covered broadly in the national media.

Ian also has a personal interest in endurance athletics having taken on mountain ultra-trail races in the Alps, the Lakes and Scotland.  He was selected to represent England in the Marathon in the 55-50 age group in 2018.  He believes that preparation for sport and clinical performance share many similarities.

We caught up with Professor Ian Needleman to understand what motivates his research and how he feels his own personal endurance challenges influence his work. We asked Ian ten questions, and this is what he told us…

Question 1: What is it about oral health that interested you when you chose to specialise?

Ian:  Oral health is important to most of us but also somewhat under the radar for research. There are fabulous opportunities to harness its links with general health, quality of life and psychological well-being to promote population health and reduce disparities.

Question 2:  Can you explain more about the link between athletic performance and good oral health?  

Ian:  There are many stories of GB athletes missing competitions or training due to severe toothache or infections, although these incidents are not common. Our studies on more than 800 elite athletes suggest that poor oral health has more common but more subtle effects similar to overuse injuries in athletes. We have found that 20-30% of elite athletes report their training or performance is affected by their oral health – quite shocking since good oral health should be the norm.

Question 3: Can you tell us more about the sports team collaborations you have forged to test your theories about the role oral health plays in performance results?

Ian:  We have had fantastic collaboration from GB Olympic teams, Premier League football and Premiership rugby, from athletes to performance directors and coaches. We have tried to live in and understand their universe, the pressures and drivers of high-performance sport in order to support their objectives and ambitions.

Question 4: What are the main recommendations you would give to a sports coach or manager who is looking to fine-tune their team’s performance and improve results?

Ian:    Understand that poor oral health can undermine performance. We have shown that simple, low-cost approaches, that target athletes’ motivation can be successfully implemented in Olympic and professional teams. Don’t focus on oral health, but instead the sport benefits of performance and appearance. A good daily routine for elite athletes includes cleaning between the teeth with floss or even better interdental brushes, toothbrushing twice daily with a higher dose fluoride toothpaste (2,800 or 5,000 ppm) and a food first nutrition plan avoiding sugars unless essential for training or competition. Build a relationship with a local dentist to carry out twice yearly screening and to coach the athletes to greater oral health success. Our Centre for Oral Health and Performance is always happy to help.

Question 5: UCL’s Eastman Dental Institute is a world leader in oral health, can you explain more about why you think this is and why UCL excels in this area?

Ian:  The Eastman is crammed full of great people who think and care deeply about the importance of oral health to the global population and how to improve it and I would pay particular tribute to my colleagues in Periodontology. To be surrounded by colleagues around UCL with world-leading expertise and enthusiasm for multi-disciplinary thinking is inspiring.

Question 6:  What would be your advice to students thinking of specialising in dentistry today?

Ian:   Dentistry offers a wonderful and varied career from clinical practice to research and education. We are in an exciting period of innovation from beginning to unravel the contribution of the oral microbiome to health - to leading reconstructive and regenerative therapies for diseased and injured tissues. Now is a great time to get involved.

Question 7:  How do your own personal endurance challenges influence your interest in perfecting performance through improving oral health?

Ian:  I love but am missing competition currently - not just the event but the planning and experimentation of all the different components that can make a difference. Getting to the start line with the feeling that I have prepared well is hugely confidence-boosting. If our research and training contribute to improving an athlete’s preparation and wellbeing, that is very exciting.

Question 8:  Can you explain how much your clinical practice informs and inspires your research and visa-versa?

Ian: Listen to patients! My biggest learning over the last decade is just how much involving patients to advise on studies or as co-researchers can improve its relevance, quality and save a lot of time. I’m really privileged to work with the wonderful UCL public-engagement staff and the Centre for Co-Production in Health Research.

Question 9:  Which areas of oral health research do you see as the future focus over the next ten years?

Ian:  As mentioned already, the contribution of oral bacteria to health, regenerative medicine and embedding patient involvement in research teams.

Question 10: What’s the drive that makes you leap out of bed every day..?!

Ian:  Other than a hill run, the amazing privilege of working with patients.


Discover more here:
Professor Ian Needleman profile