Dr. Michele Shapiro, of the Issie Shapiro Educational Center: ‘This new approach could replace sedatives.’

A trip to the doctor or the dentist can be a stressful experience for many children. The clinical sounds, smells and lights often cause anxiety levels to rise, particularly in children with developmental disabilities who find it difficult to understand the unfamiliar clinical environment.

Now a new Israeli study has shown that changes to the sensory environment of a dental clinic, such as soft lighting and soothing music, can have a significant impact on a child’s anxiety levels as he undergoes treatment.

Dr. Michele Shapiro, of the Issie Shapiro Educational Center in Ra’anana and colleagues from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, compared the anxiety levels of 35 children who took two routine cleaning visits to the dentist. The children were aged between six to 11 years, and 16 of them were developmentally disabled.

The researchers used a behavior checklist to measure the anxiety levels of the children during each visit and monitored each child’s electro-dermal activity, an objective measure of arousal.

The first trip was like a regular trip to a dental office, with fluorescent lighting and the use of an overhead dental lamp. During the second trip, however, the researchers adapted the office so there was no overhead lighting. Instead a slow moving repetitive color lamp was added, and the dental hygienist wore a special LED headlamp that shone light into the child’s mouth.

A different sensory environment

The children listened to soothing music and wore a heavy vest that created a hug-like effect. The dental chair was modified to vibrate.

Shapiro and her team found that use of the sensory adapted environment decreased anxiety levels in all the children, particularly those with developmental problems.

In normal children, the duration of anxious behavior dropped significantly, from an average of 3.69 minutes to 1.48 minutes, while in those with developmental problems, anxious behavior dropped from 23.44 minutes to 9.04 minutes, according to the researchers.

The study will be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.

In the wake of the study, Shapiro, director of the Multi-Sensory Center at Issie Shapiro, a non-profit organization founded to help people with developmental disabilities, believes this new method may have a potential use in other medical settings

“This new approach may even replace sedatives and other invasive procedures in the future,” she says.