A recent study by U.K. scientists has concluded patients can better manage procedure-related pain with the help of virtual reality (VR). This research was published earlier this week in the Environment and Behavior journal.

Using VR technology during an exam also altered the way patients recollected appointment pain a week later. This is a significant finding as the dental world commonly agrees that a patient's memories of painful experiences at the dentist greatly influence the likelihood of attending future routine appointments.

Researchers from the Universities of Birmingham, Exeter and Plymouth worked together at Torrington Dental Practice to perform this study. They separated patients into two studies to examine the effects of VR on dental appointment pain and anxiety.

In the first study, patients were given a cold pressor task (immersing the patient's hand into cold water to study elevated heart levels and other stress indicators) and were either allowed to wear VR goggles that either showed nothing, a coastal scene they could not interact with, or a coastal scene in which they could move a joystick with the nonimmersed hand to explore the landscape.

After the study, participants were asked to rate their levels of experience pain on an 11-point scale. Those exposed to VR conditions rated their pain one-point less than those not provided VR conditions. The passive VR and active VR study groups did not deviate in their measure of experienced pain.

One week later, participants were asked to recall their experience, and the pain they endured. VR reduced the measure of recalled pain. Again, the active VR participants did not deviate from passive VR participants in their memory of the overall experience. This information lead researchers to believe this technology could be a benefit to anxious patients in the future.

The second study involved separating participants into two groups. Each group contained patients who needed to undergo extractions or fillings, and both groups included patients undergoing conscious sedation and those without any form of sedation. Local anesthetics were used to manage pain.

Additionally, both groups wore VR goggles with interactive scenery playing. Patients used a thumb-controlled joystick to navigate the scenes.

One group was able to explore the same coastal environment played in the first study, and the other explored an urban setting. Once the treatment was concluded, patients were asked to rate their overall experience and pain on a 25-point scale. Ratings were compared with that of conventionally-treated control groups. Again, patients were contacted the following week to discuss their recollection of the visit.

Unsurprisingly, the coastal VR patients reported less pain than the conventional patients. However, researchers found there was no difference in experienced pain for urban VR patients when compared to the conventional, non-VR patients.

Recalled pain was again significantly less in the coastal VR patients, but once again, the urban VR patients showed no difference in remembered pain than the control group.

What does this mean?

Dentists may consider investing in VR equipment to soothe anxious patients. This, in turn, could encourage them to return as needed for regularly scheduled appointments.

Easing a patient's dental-related anxiety can drastically improve their oral healthcare — patients with an extreme fear of the dentist tend to go longer between visits, thus leading to worse overall oral health and more need of restorative treatments. VR therapy can help patient retention as well as improve the emotional and dental well-being of anxious patients.