Virtual reality helps patients manage pain, anxiety

Walking along a virtual beach could help a patient reduce pain, according to researchers from the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham. A study, published in Environment & Behaviour, examined the feasibility of using virtual reality to improve outcomes while patients undergo routine dental procedures.

Virtual reality (VR), while mainly popular in the gaming space, has begun to offer its benefits to patients in a multitude of medical settings. Researchers in this study set out to prove the technology offers advanced benefits even after the goggles have come off.

"The use of virtual reality in healthcare settings is on the rise but we need more rigorous evidence of whether it actually improves patient experiences,” said Karin Tanja-Dijkstra, PhD, lead author on the study. “Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners."

The study, which was split into two parts, enrolled 155 patients who were split into three groups: one received standard care, another used VR to take a virtual walk along a beach with a headset and handheld controller, and the final group received a virtual city via VR. Researchers aimed to showcase the importance of the type of virtual environment.

"We have done a lot of work recently which suggests that people are happiest and most relaxed when they are at the seaside,” said co-author Mathew White, MD, from the University of Exeter. “So it seemed only natural to investigate whether we could 'bottle' this experience and use it to help people in potentially stressful healthcare contexts."

Results showed that patients who received the virtual walk on the beach were less anxious, had less pain and recalled the procedure as positive a week after when compared to patients receiving standard care. Participants who received a virtual walk around a city did not experience these benefits. The team now hopes to incorporate similar technology into other medical practices and develop additional virtual environments for similar benefits to patients.

"This research is one of a number of initiatives we at Plymouth University Peninsula School of Dentistry have been working on alongside the fabulous team at Torrington Dental Practice and it clearly demonstrates the benefits that can be achieved when academics work in partnership with clinicians in order to address problems that really matter to patients,” said David Moles, a professor from the University of Plymouth.