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A specially-weighted blanket that occupational therapists have been using in their practices for years might offer a solution for dentists dealings with patients experiencing stress and anxiety. By John Burfitt
As the issue of patient anxiety has come far more to the fore in recent years, many dentists have resorted to a range of techniques to bring a sense of calm to dental appointments, for the sake of both the patient as well as the practitioner.
Some play soothing music, others have chairs with massage functions and screen popular shows on suitably positioned TVs. Then there are dentists who—before reaching for the scaler or drill in appointments with distressed patients—will go through a range of relaxing breathing and meditation exercises.
Over the past year, Townsville’s Dr Johan Kriek of the Dental 206 practice, has been running a trial of a very different technique. He wraps anxiety-prone patients in a specially designed weighted blanket, which applies deep-touch pressure across their body.
This weighted blanket-wrapping technique is one occupational therapists have been using for years to assist with children and adults living with conditions such as autism, ADHD, stress and sensory disorders.
The results of his blanket trial, Dr Kriek claims, are very positive; its use has dramatically changed the behaviour of patients with serious dental visit anxiety issues, as well as the way he treats them.
“The job of treating those patients with very real fears has become easier, and as you progress through an appointment, they become much more relaxed and, therefore, easier to work with,” Dr Kriek, who graduated from South Africa’s University of Pretoria Dental School in 1986, says.
“I used it with one regular patient who had always been highly anxious whenever he came in. At the end of probably our best appointment in years, I asked why he had been so much calmer, and he responded, ‘That blanket made me feel less agitated and much less twitchy’.”
The weighted blanket is made from medical-grade nylon, comprising a pattern of pockets each filled with glass beads. Once it is placed over the patient, its weight causes the blanket to wrap around the contours of a patient, all the while exerting deep-touch pressure, which stimulates touch receptors throughout the body.
Dr Kriek describes the sensation of the blanket as being like, ‘a warm hug’, releasing serotonin in the brain to contribute to feelings of calm and relaxation.
“The body runs two types of nervous systems—the sympathetic when you become scared and anxious, and the parasympathetic system as you start to relax,” he says. “The deep-touch pressure of the blanket calms the patient down and cancels out the distress. It’s when you see the effect it has you realise this is not yet another gimmick.”
Dr Kriek is now the Australian distributor of the blankets under the brand name of DentaCalm. He claims his faith in the technique is backed by studies such as 2012’s ‘Physiological Effects of Deep Touch Pressure on Anxiety Alleviation: The Weighted Blanket Approach’ in the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering and 2016’s ‘Effect of deep pressure input on parasympathetic system in patients with wisdom tooth surgery’ in the Journal of the Formosan Medical Association. Single blankets retail from $575 with a three-blanket kit from $1750.
One noteworthy discovery in his one-year trial, Dr Kriek reveals, is he did not have to convince any patients of the benefits of the blanket when it was offered. “The public seem way ahead of us with these techniques and most already knew about the benefits of weighted blankets,” he says. “I was surprised so many people were already knowledgeable about this, as these days everyone seems to know someone who has a kid who is on the spectrum or has a friend dealing with anxiety, and have used these blankets through other therapists.
“All the patients I did suggest it to were happy to give it a try, and when they noticed the effect it was having, asked if we could use it again next time.”
Hygiene protocols recommend the blankets be wiped down and cleaned thoroughly using medical-grade wipes between each patient, and the blanket can also be washed.
According to the University of Adelaide’s Dental Fear and Anxiety study, about 40 per cent of Australians with high dental fear fit the ‘vicious cycle of dental fear’ profile. This is when—if their anxiety is not managed appropriately—patients avoid visits, resulting in the cycle continuing with a worsening of problems, leading to potentially even more invasive treatment when the patient becomes urgently in need of dental treatment.
Dr Kriek says acknowledging anxiety and fears and offering a solution—whatever it may be—to help deal with it goes a long way in establishing trust with stressed-out patients.
“Patients really appreciate when you’ve noticed their anxiety and talk directly about it, mentioning you have something that might assist,” he says. “It is so much worse when the dentist just ignores it and then both the patient and the practitioner are fearful throughout that appointment about what the outcome might be.”
If the experience of using the blanket with a patient has proven positive, Dr Kriek says he makes a note on that patient’s record to use it again during their next visit. But he says it’s not for everyone, and that currently he uses the blanket only on about 30 per cent of his current case load.
“This is something you make a case-by-case decision on,” he says. “But I am now finding my regular patients are referring new patients who specifically ask for the blanket when they make the first booking and then arrive in the clinic. Anything that cancels out some of the distress I’ve had to deal with in the past is a welcome change, and this has definitely made my job easier.”