Art therapy as support for children with leukemia during painful procedures

C Favara-Scacco, G Smirne, G Schilirò, A Di Cataldo
Medical and Pediatric Oncology 2001, 36 (4): 474-80

BACKGROUND: Children with leukemia undergo painful procedures such as lumbar puncture and bone marrow aspiration. To overcome pain, certain units offer total anesthesia; others offer generic support; others offer no preparation at all. Since September, 1997, we have provided leukemic children with art therapy (AT), a nonverbal and creative modality that develops coping skills. Our goal is to prevent anxiety and fear during painful interventions as well as prolonged emotional distress.

PROCEDURE: We treated 32 children aged 2-14 years. The modes of AT before, during, and after the punctures were as follows: clinical dialogue to calm children and help them cope with painful procedures; visual imagination to activate alternative thought processes and decrease the attention towards overwhelming reality and raise the peripheral sensitivity gate; medical play to clarify illness, eliminate doubts, and offer control over threatening reality; structured drawing to contain anxiety by offering a structured, predictable reality (the drawing) that was controllable by children; free drawing to allow children to externalize confusion and fears; and dramatization to help children accept and reconcile themselves to body changes.

RESULTS: Children hospitalized before September, 1997, exhibited resistance and anxiety during and after painful procedures. By contrast, children provided with AT from the first hospitalization exhibited collaborative behavior. They or their parents asked for AT when the intervention had to be repeated. Parents declared themselves better able to manage the painful procedures when AT was offered.

CONCLUSION: AT was shown to be a useful intervention that can prevent permanent trauma and support children and parents during intrusive interventions.

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