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Scientists find virtual reality can reduce the pain associated with dental treatment

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A virtual coastal environment can be employed to manage pain, according to research published in the scientific journal Environment and Behavior. The study found that a virtual walk along a beach reduced the experienced and recollected pain associated with dental treatment.

“My background is in environmental psychology and I’m particularly interested in the supportive role of nature in healthcare delivery. We know from a lot of research that nature is good for people. Exposure to nature improves mood, reduces stress, and enhances wellbeing. But not everyone can go and enjoy natural environments at all times,” explained the study’s corresponding author, Karin Tanja-Dijkstra of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

“So the idea was to bring nature indoors, to provide these benefits to people who really need it. We especially looked for a medical context in which we could trial this because people can get quite stressed and anxious. We came up with dentistry because it is a very common experience, and one (still) associated with anxiety.”

In their first experiment, the researchers made 85 participants dunk their hand into a tub of cold water while they wore a virtual reality headset. For some participants, the VR headset was switched off. For others, the VR headset allowed them to passively see a beach environment. For a third group, the VR headset allowed them to actively explore the beach environment. The participants in the last two groups reported experiencing less pain.

The researchers then took the experiment out of the lab and into the field. This time, they asked 70 patients wear a VR headset while they underwent dental treatment for fillings or extraction. (The dentist provided local anesthetics.) The volunteers in the experiment were again split into three groups: One group experienced a virtual beach environment, the second group experienced a virtual urban city environment, and the third group did not experience any VR environments.

They found being able to explore a coastal environment was associated with significantly less experienced pain than standard care, even after controlling for age, gender, dental anxiety, type and duration of treatment.

“In our study we demonstrated that patients using VR nature during dental treatment experienced less pain immediately after treatment, and they recollected less pain a week later than did those in the standard care condition,” Tanja-Dijkstra told PsyPost. “These benefits were not found for those who walked around a virtual city. The fact that walking around the virtual city did not improve outcomes shows that merely distracting the patients isn’t enough, the environment patients visit needs to be welcoming and relaxing.”

“I think there are plenty of medical professionals who would like to trial this type of technology. It requires some thought as to how to integrate it with the way you treat patients, for example in terms of positioning the equipment, cables etc. It also requires some practice and a small amount of time to get the headset right. I would think the benefits outweigh this by far but it is also useful to know that the technology is moving so quickly that it gets easier and easier.”

“There is huge potential for using VR technology in other medical contexts, basically anything where patients are having treatment and have to sit or lie still. Our research suggests it would be really helpful to use VR in contexts that are painful or uncomfortable and there are plenty more examples,” Tanja-Dijkstra said.

“Some good research already exists around treatment of burns but the list is long, from radiotherapy to IVF etc. I would hope that more good research is done around these opportunities, with good sample sizes and research designs. Our study was one of the few that used a randomised controlled trial.”

The study, “The Soothing Sea: A Virtual Coastal Walk Can Reduce Experienced and Recollected Pain“, was also co-authored by Sabine Pahl, Mathew P. White, Melissa Auvray, Robert J. Stone, Jackie Andrade, Jon May, Ian Mills, and David R. Moles.

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