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News / February 24, 2009

New approach to dental visits may ease kids

by Guy Hiscott

A new study, to be published in The Journal of Pediatrics, has found that anxiety levels can be reduced in children when the sensory environment of the dental surgery is changed.

For many children, a trip to the dentist is a stressful experience. 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 a child’s anxiety levels during two separate routine cleaning visits.

The researchers observed 35 children between the ages of six and 11 years, 16 of whom were developmentally disabled. They measured the anxiety levels of the children during each visit using a behaviour checklist and monitored each child’s electro-dermal activity, an objective measure of arousal.

The first trip included the typical sensory experiences of a dental office, including fluorescent lighting and the use of an overhead dental lamp. During the second trip, however, the researchers created a sensory adapted environment that modified the experience for the children. 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 also modified to produce a vibration.

Dr Shapiro and her colleagues found that anxiety levels decreased in all children when the sensory adapted environment was used. The duration of anxious behaviour dropped significantly, 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.