June 27, 2017

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. That’s because dentists can help them leave their fears behind thanks to virtual reality.

According to Science Daily, a recent experiment found that dentists who immersed patients in virtual reality helped lower patients’ stress and pain.

Researchers from Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham University enlisted 80 participants who needed a filling or a tooth extraction. The researchers split participants into three groups. Two groups wore VR headsets during their procedures. The third acted as the control group and did not wear headsets. The researchers administered pain medication and/or sedation to any patient who required it.

Which Universe to Choose?

Of the two groups that wore headsets, VR transported one to a calm beach environment.  Meanwhile, VR allowed the other group to explore a less calming city environment.

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

Those who visited a virtual beach reported less stress and pain than the other groups. A week later, this group also had a far more positive recollection of the treatment.  In addition, they were more likely to return to the dentist.

Patients who visited the virtual reality city reported the same amount of stress and pain as the control group. This indicates that this virtual reality 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.” However, she continued, “…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 virtual city group shows that simply distracting patients with any sort of VR might not make dental work more relaxing. It seems that in order for the VR environment to help, the environment must be calm and soothing, like a beach.

The success of the virtual beach is not a surprise. 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 improve mood and also reduce heart rate and blood pressure.

Virtual Reality Beaches are Relaxing

The real surprise from the recent study was the stark difference between the two groups’ experiences. Dr. Melissa Auvray, a dentist involved in the study, said feedback the researchers received from the patients who visited a virtual beach was “fantastic.” 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,” Dr. Auvray noted. In addition, Auvray said, “the dentist and dental nurse need further training. However, …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 the researchers designed to make medical treatment as relaxing as humanly possible.

Read next: Dental Anxiety? Sedation Dentistry Could Help

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