Pain is a complex subject due, among other factors, to its mix of objective and subjective factors. If asked to pick the medical specialty most often associated with pain, dentistry would be at or near the top of the list for most people. A group of scientists, researchers, and dentists in Europe recently published a report with the results from two studies about the use of VR to minimize dentistry pain experience. The studies showed a specific type of virtual reality (VR) scenes is most effective at reducing present and recalled pain experience during dentistry. In the past, we’ve written about using VR to lessen elderly injuries from falls, help paraplegics regain limb control, and cope with paranoia, but the use of VR to diminish felt and remembered pain associated with dental procedures has broad applicability.

The group used two VR scenic experiences, a coastal nature scene and an urban scene. In the first study, 85 subjects in three groups were given the cold presser test: a standard pain test in which a subject’s hand is immersed in ice water for a period of time and various measures are taken after withdrawal. In the second study, 70 subjects tested for pain during actual dental procedure. In each case there were control groups and in the second case the VR subjects saw either natural coastal scenes or urban scenes. The studies revealed that active engagement with VR — being able to move around via a controller — was a bit more effectivein reducing both experienced and remembered pain than no VR or passive viewing of VR scenes. In the second study, testing revealed that moving through a coastal scene resulted in significantly less pain experience and memory than no VR or VR with urban scenes.

Before dentists worldwide leap to use active coastal scenes with virtual reality headsets to help patients experience less pain, more study is necessary. The studies mentioned need to be replicated and then other variations of scene and engagement types should be tested. The potential for VR to help with pain management in dentistry and with other medical procedures and conditions holds great promise.