Virtual Reality Might be a Cure for Dental Anxiety

Patients who are afraid of the dentist might soon be able to escape to an alternate universe during check-ups and leave their fears behind.

According to Science Daily, a recent experiment found that dental patients who are immersed in virtual reality experience less stress and even pain while undergoing dental work.

Researchers from Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham University enlisted 80 participants who needed to have a cavity filled or a tooth pulled. The participants were split into three groups, two of which wore VR headsets during their procedures while the third acted as the control group and did not wear headsets. Pain medication and/or sedation was administered to any patient who required it.

Which Universe to Choose?

Of the two groups that wore headsets, one was transported to a virtual beach during treatment while the other explored a virtual cityscape.

Patients completed a survey immediately after treatment and a second survey one week later.

Those who visited a virtual beach reported less stress and pain than both of the remaining groups. When asked about their procedure a week later, the former group also had a far more positive recollection of the treatment than the other two, making them more likely to return to the dentist. Patients who visited the city apparently reported the same amount of stress and pain as the control group, meaning this particular virtual environment had no effect on their experience.

Virtual Reality in Health Care is on the rise

Lead author Dr. Karin Tanja-Dijkstra said: “The use of virtual reality in health care settings is on the rise but we need more rigorous evidence of whether it actually improves patient experiences. Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners.”

The experience of the group that was transported to a virtual city shows that simply distracting the patient with any sort of virtual environment might not necessarily make a dental procedure any more relaxing. It seems that in order for the VR environment to inhibit pain or stress, the environment must be particularly calm and soothing, like a beach.
The success of the virtual beach, however, is not exactly a surprise considering previous research has shown that the average person is most relaxed in this type of environment.

A 2015 study found that even spending time in an aquarium can not only improve mood but reduce heart rate and blood pressure as well.

Beaches are relaxing

The real surprise from the recent study was the stark difference between the experiences of the two VR groups. Dr. Melissa Auvray, a dentist involved in the study, said that the feedback the researchers received from the patients who visited a virtual beach was “fantastic,” which suggests that they might have been so absorbed in the virtual environment that they actually enjoyed their dental procedures.

Adding to the findings’ significance is the current popularity of sedation dentistry.

“The benefit of the VR is that with sedation patients need to have someone with them to help them home afterwards, and the dentist and dental nurse need further training,” Dr. Auvray noted. “However, with the VR, any dentist with a dental degree could learn to use the VR kit, and it could benefit patients.”

The research team plans to determine whether a virtual beach could achieve the same results for patients undergoing more serious procedures. Such studies will likely involve improved versions of the beach environment that were designed to make medical treatment as relaxing as humanly possible.


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