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Computer-assisted relaxation learning, or CARL, is a dental assistant of sorts that helps alleviate signs of dental fear and anxiety

Can Computer-Assisted Relaxation Learning Combat Dental Fear?

Computer-assisted relaxation learning, or CARL, is a dental assistant of sorts that helps alleviate signs of dental fear and anxiety

We’ve come a long way in terms of technological advances. Automation runs most of the things we know. We no longer have to slave away at the most mundane tasks; instead, they’ve been delegated to complex programs and machines that do it for us. But while technology’s a norm in our daily lives, some advances might raise a few eyebrows. Advances such as CARL, or computer-assisted relaxation learning.

If you’re as confused as I am, don’t panic—let’s take it step by step. 

In a nutshell, CARL is a dental assistant of sorts. For the most part, CARL helps patients deal with injection-based dental fear and anxiety (DFA). For this, the dental assistant makes use of systematic desensitization—a type of therapy where you’re exposed bit by bit to the things you fear until you don’t fear them anymore. 

But how does CARL use systemic desensitization? And how successful is the dental assistant? 

Computer-assisted relaxation learning helps patients heal themselves

What you first need to know about CARL is that it is self-paced. This is crucial for several reasons. Because the dental assistant uses systematic desensitization, you need to make sure that the pace of exposure doesn’t overwhelm the patient. The method is already traumatic in itself. Because it’s mostly used to treat phobias, patients have to face what triggers them gradually. And it’s not exactly the most pleasant experience to confront the thing you fear the most. By putting the treatment at a pace that’s comfortable for the patient, it makes it a little less unpleasant to go through. 

Placing the pace of treatment in the patient’s hands also helps give them a sense of control over the situation. When you’ve gone through a harrowing experience, it can throw you off in a way that makes you feel hopeless. Regaining that sense of agency, then, becomes a crucial part of the healing process and helps the patient in the long term. 

When we say self-paced, however, this isn’t just limited to when they spend time on the assistant. An article by the Dental Tribune on a study with CARL notes that patients can “stop the video at any time” to report their fear levels. If they’re particularly high, CARL can redirect patients to a less stressful video until they’re able to take the next step.  

A combination of videos and relaxation techniques

But how does CARL work, exactly? For the most part, it uses videos. The Dental Tribune article notes that two of these videos taught techniques patients can use to combat fear. The other seven videos show an actor getting a dental injection step-by-step. These videos serve to expose the patient to the trigger gradually. 

With every point of exposure, the patient should ideally use the techniques they learned in the training videos to lessen anxiety when faced with them. In the study, patients are asked to do this at least once a week for 30 minutes. This might seem like a lax pace to some, but the researchers noted a significant improvement in these participants. Particularly as opposed to the control group, who went over a pamphlet with a dental assistant.

While the study was conducted between 2008 and 2010, it still holds a lot of promise for DFA patients around the world. But while it might take some time until it becomes ubiquitous, for those afraid of the dentist, it’s nonetheless a welcome addition to one’s arsenal against dental fear and anxiety. 

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