Not many people want to see the dentist. It’s an environment that’s associated with sterility, invasive treatment and pain. While dentistry has come a long way, especially in recent years, there is still a lot of people who are scared of the dentist. A quarter of people are scared to see the dentist, some to the point where they have put off treatment for years.
As not attending the dentist can lead to huge problems with teeth, is it possible for virtual reality to intervene and make the reality of dentistry less painful? A paper published in the journal Environment and Behavior looked into how a simple virtual reality experience could reduce the pain of dental treatment.
The journal looked at two similar studies undertaken to look at pain responses. The first was a simple experiment involving a laboratory pain test, undertaken either with or without a VR experience. In the experiment, the experience used was a VR coastal environment, which was either explored directly using a handset controller, or a passive video. During this, a cold pressor test, in which a subject’s hand is put in very cold water, was used as a controlled pain experiment. The results showed a reduction in pain and pain recollection for those in the VR scenarios, with a slight though not statistically significant decrease for active VR participants.
The second, and more world-appropriate test was to test the VR set up during routine dental treatment, adding an “urban VR” experience as well, to explore the hypothesis that nature is an important factor in the reduction of pain. The third, control group simply looked at the ceiling. The results were far more dramatic. The Coast VR setting led to significantly less pain than undergoing care, however a similarly constructed and interactive urban environment did not lead to the same effects, and indeed were no better than not using anything at all.
This is a particularly interesting study for VR because it highlights that there are particular ways in which VR and exposure to particular environments work. VR is effective as pain relief not just because it distracts you, because the urban environment should have also have led to pain relief as well.
There is plenty of further research that needs to be done on the subject, but this is another example of VR being used effectively in healthcare beyond its use as a teaching aid. Virtual reality here is a component of pain relief and also assisting with managing and confronting a fear held by a great many people.