Draw your own conclusions: Researchers suggest in a small new study that art therapy makes kids less anxious about their condition.
The results provide "encouraging initial data" that art therapy can help improve the emotional health of chronically ill children, the authors write in the May issue of the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 7 million American children, or nearly one in 10, have asthma. The breathing disorder is a leading cause of school absences.
For children, "simply thinking about past asthma attacks can bring on feelings of anxiety," the authors write, and anxiety can either precipitate an episode or worsen an otherwise mild one.
In art therapy, children work with crayons, paints, and other materials, guided by a therapist to express feelings that they may have trouble communicating in words.
"It's not about painting pretty pictures," Anya Beebe, an art therapist at the National Jewish Health in Denver who led the study, told Reuters Health. "It's about helping people go deeper, and using art as a process to express and release their feelings."
Although art therapy has become more common in hospitals to help children cope with the distress of their illness and hospital stays, researchers haven't yet rigorously studied whether it works in asthma.
Beebe and colleagues enrolled 22 children between the ages of 7 and 14 with persistent asthma. The children were students at a school on the campus of National Jewish Health in Denver; 11 were randomly assigned to have art therapy along with their usual asthma treatments for 7 weeks, and the others had usual asthma treatment but not art therapy.
The children were tested using several standardized measures for coping skills, anxiety, worry, self-concept, and quality of life before the first therapy session, at the end of the last session and six months later.
At the end of seven weeks, the art therapy group had lower anxiety and higher quality-of-life and self-concept scores than the group that didn't have art therapy. The improvements persisted, although they were not as pronounced, six months later.
Calling the results "striking," Beebe and her colleagues write that "the use of art therapy for children with severe, chronic asthma is clearly of benefit."
Beebe said the results were gratifying but not surprising. "Kids tend to feel better after doing art therapy," she said.
The researchers did not study whether less anxiety would decrease the number of asthma episodes, nor decrease the amount of medications children need. But "physical health and psychological health are often linked, and we do see that link in children with asthma," Beebe said.
The cost of art therapy varies depending on the institution, and some hospitals offer it free. According to the American Association of Art Therapy, it is difficult to put an exact price tag on it because it may be billed as part of other services.