In theory, sensory hypersensitivity refers to greater-than-normal sensitivity. However, in practice, this phenomenon is much more complex and distressing, as can affect all day-to-day activities.
Those who suffer from it are overly sensitive to their environment. Do you remember that incessantly dripping faucet that was getting on your last nerve? A person with hypersensitivity feels that way all the time, so you can imagine how stressing, uncomfortable and often intolerable hypersensitivity can be, especially since it can take olfactory, auditory and visual forms, among others. In short, it entails reactions that many might qualify as exaggerated, since few of us really understand and recognize this pathology. In fact, the healthcare community doesn’t even consider it an illness or a health problem.
You can understand why medical appointments, especially visits to the dentist, can represent a serious challenge. Luckily, even though hypersensitivity isn’t an “official” disease, dentists are getting better and better at discerning hypersensitive behaviors and are arming themselves with best practices and new technologies to help make dental care, if not pleasant, at least a bit easier.
Learn more about what sensory hypersensitivity is and how you can make visits to the dentist more comfortable and peaceful, both for you and for your loved ones.
What we know about sensory hypersensitivity
Rather than defining sensory hypersensitivity as an illness, we tend to describe it as a character trait that leads people to experience things much more intensely. Also called “hyperreactivity” or “hyperresponsiveness,” it has to do with the behavior of the brain, which has a different way of filtering and processing the information it receives. Therefore, it isn’t a question of exaggeration, but instead, a difference in perception.
We can distinguish six principal types of hypersensitivity corresponding to the five senses—hearing, smell, taste, touch and vision—and the emotions:
- Hypersensitivity to touch
- Hypersensitivity to sound
- Hypersensitivity to smells
- Visual hypersensitivity
- Hypersensitivity to taste
- Emotional hypersensitivity
The tests used to detect hypersensitivity often consist of evaluating reactions to stimuli involving each of the five senses.
What are the specific signs of hypersensitivity?
The following symptoms may be good indicators:
- Inability to eat at the table with other family members because of their chewing noises
- Inability to tolerate wearing socks, scarves or certain other items of clothing, such as jeans
- Difficulty concentrating because of a ticking clock
- Intolerance of other people being too close or violating the person’s “personal space”
- Difficulty swallowing because of the texture of certain foods
As you can see, it would be easy to mistake these symptoms for mere eccentricities, which explains why recognizing hypersensitivity is such a complicated matter. If you, your child or someone close to you experiences these difficulties, make an appointment with an occupational therapist. This type of specialist will be able to confirm the diagnosis.
Is it manageable?
The biggest problem with hypersensitivity is that there’s no cure. You can try to “live with it,” for example, by working with a psychologist, who can help guide you in better managing the condition. Hypersensitive individuals often externalize their emotions and display their high levels of stress through actions and behaviors as varied as angry outbursts, apathy and avoidance. A good example would be a child who’s sensitive to sand. The child might get mad and throw it (anger), sit down in it and cry (passivity) or avoid touching it (avoidance).
This isn’t an isolated example, as there are many reports of children affected by hypersensitivity. While there are few studies on the subject, figures from 2004 and 2009 estimate that 5 percent of children under the age of 7 and 16 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 11 suffer from some form of hypersensitivity. These sensory disturbances can occur alone or in combination with other conditions, such as ADHD, developmental problems, learning differences and autism spectrum disorders.
Hypersensitivity can quickly affect an individual’s day-to-day routine. If such mundane activities as eating and dressing become complicated, what does that say about medical procedures, such as dental care? Over the past few years, specialists have implemented new technologies and adapted their work environments, making them warm and welcoming. They also work with parents and loved ones in an effort to minimize the impact of sensory hypersensitivity.
Visits to the dentist: teamwork with parents
Since sensory hypersensitivity skews the expression of pain, prevention is still the best strategy: avoiding foods that promote cavities, making dental care less daunting by visiting the dentist regularly (not just in an emergency) and, most of all, practicing good oral hygiene. But how do you brush a hypersensitive child’s teeth?
- Introduce the child to brushing at a very early age to familiarize him or her with the toothbrush and toothpaste.
- Rub the brush on the child’s hand to familiarize him or her with the sensation.
- If the child refuses to brush at first, try to get the child to keep the brush in his or her mouth for a few seconds, gradually increasing the amount of time and working up to full brushing.
- Demonstrate brushing on dolls or stuffed animals.
- Put on some music and turn brushing into a fun game.
Preparing a hypersensitive child for a visit to the dentist
Before visiting the dentist, you can prepare as follows:
- Stop by the dentist’s office the day before the appointment to familiarize the child with the environment and the dental-care team.
- Schedule the appointment for a time when the office isn’t busy.
- Make the initial appointment longer to allow for explanations and conversation.
- Schedule subsequent appointments closer together but for shorter periods.
- Explain each step and answer questions without getting angry, impatient or judgmental.
Dental offices are aware of sensory hypersensitivity and its consequences, especially in the case of children. As a result, they won’t hesitate to develop a certain number of solutions to promote the patient’s relaxation and well-being. They’ll schedule multiple sessions, work under softer lighting, make sure not to be unorganized during the visit, keep their instruments out of sight, use visual aids to help explain their actions, avoid restricting the child’s mobility and perform the procedures in the agreed order.
In terms of technologies, nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) is particularly notable, as it produces an effect of conscious sedation. The patient remains conscious and can answer questions, but feels relaxed, thanks to the mild sedative action, which improves his or her comfort. Hypnosis can also induce a state of letting go, leading to a profound sense of relaxation. The patient remains awake and in control of his or her emotions while undergoing the procedure.
Clinique Dentaire Charles Trottier offers both of these treatments. The team has always strived to provide the most attentive, personalized service possible. For them, caring for people who are hypersensitive or anxious means contributing to their well-being, while respecting their reactions and showing them all the empathy and tolerance they have the right to expect.
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Integrated health and social services centres (CISSS), Outaouais. Troubles du spectre de l’autisme et santé buccodentaire – projet de collaboration réalisé en Outaouais [Autism spectrum disorders and oral health—collaboration project conducted in Outaouais]. 2015.