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Could VR make your next dentist visit less painful?

Could VR make your next dentist visit less painful?


Plus: a menu of imaginary VR worlds to choose from

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Photo by Airman 1st Class Christopher Maldonado/US Air Force

Dentists and patients alike want to know how to make dental work less traumatic — and one possible solution may be to combine it with virtual reality. That’s why researchers in the UK enlisted 80 people who needed a cavity filled or a tooth pulled, and separated them into three groups. They gave the first two groups VR headsets, but not the unlucky third control group.

The VR groups either got to explore a beach or navigate a city. The people in the control group just stared at the ceiling while the dentist yanked on their teeth. (Everyone in the study got pain meds or sedation if they needed it.) Patients were surveyed both immediately after their appointments, and a week later. The people immersed in the coastal VR reported less stress and pain than both the patients navigating through the virtual cityscape and the ones with no distraction — according to a study published today in Environment and Behavior.

This is part of the coastal VR world patients could explore.
This is part of the coastal VR world patients could explore.
Video: Karin Tanja-Dijkstra et al.

Much bigger studies will need to be done to see if this holds up. But both the beach scene and the city do sound like reasonably pleasant virtual alternatives to watching the dentist’s tools at work (although two patients had to stop the city VR because they felt hot and dizzy).

Still, both locales are pretty unimaginative when you think about the virtual reality possibilities you could pair with the unique experience of a having a shrieking dental drill digging into your jaw. So, to help the researchers out, we came up with a menu of options for the full VR dental experience:

  • Under the Sea: This underwater seascape will give you a more pleasant reason to feel like you’re suffocating in the dentist’s chair. Swim with the fish and explore sunken shipwrecks, accompanied by the whistles and moans of whale song. For an additional $20, the dentist can periodically splash you with water for the full submersive experience. Not recommended for people with claustrophobia.
  • Snowfall: Trek through mountainous peaks as pearly white snow falls around you. Try not to think about your actual pearly whites, or what the dentist’s doing to them. The soft swishing of your skis acoustically pairs with the pine tree essential oils wafted into your nostrils. For an additional $50, the dentist can turn down the AC to frigid temperatures. Brr…
  • The Out of This World Dental Experience: Ever wish you could combine a visit to the dentist with a trip to the planetarium? Of course you have. With this deluxe VR package, shooting stars can distract you from shooting pains as you fly through the galaxy with narrator Patrick Stewart. People with motion sickness are strongly discouraged from selecting this option. Penalty for vomiting on the dentist: $200.