For many children, especially those who have had bad or frightening experiences of illness (such as an anaphylactic or bad asthma attack) a trip to the doctor or dentist is a stressful experience. The sensory environment (ie the sounds, smells, and lights associated with the clinical setting) can cause a child's anxiety levels to rise. This is especially true in children with developmental disabilities who may have difficulty understanding the unfamiliar clinical environment.
Dr Michele Shapiro of the Issie Shapiro Educational Center and colleagues from the Hebrew University in Israel studied the effects of the sensory environment on 35 children between the ages of 6 and 11 years (16 of whom were developmentally disabled) and monitored their anxiety levels during two separate visits to the dentist for routine teeth cleaning treatment.
The first trip, to a ‘normal’ dentist’s surgery, included fluorescent lighting and the use of an overhead dental lamp. During the second trip no overhead lighting was used, a slow moving repetitive colour lamp was added, and the dental hygienist wore a special LED headlamp that directed the light into the child's mouth, the children listened to soothing music and were wrapped in a heavy vest that created a ‘hugging’ effect. The dental chair itself was modified to produce a vibration.
The researchers found that anxiety levels decreased in all children when the sensory adapted environment was used. The duration of anxious behavior dropped from an average of 3.69 minutes to 1.48 minutes in typical children. The decreased anxiety levels were even more notable in children with developmental disability, with averages dropping from 23.44 minutes to 9.04 minutes.
Dr Shapiro and her colleagues are hopeful that this new method may have a use in other medical settings and could even replace sedatives and other invasive procedures.
The Journal of Pediatrics, DOI 10.1016/j.jpeds.2008.10.017
First Published in May 2009
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