Research Summary: Role of virtual reality in reducing dental anxiety

A summary of: Cunningham, A., McPolin, O., Fallis, R. et al. A systematic review of the use of virtual reality or dental smartphone applications as interventions for management of paediatric dental anxiety. BMC Oral Health 21, 244 (2021)

Dental anxiety is a highly prevalent psychological issue experienced by patients and encountered by dental health professionals. Odontophobia is extremely common in the paediatric population and often means stress-inducing procedures such as tooth extractions and even simple examinations require the use of general anaesthetic (GA).
GA remains the most common reason for hospital admission in children aged 5-9. Unfortunately, the number of dental GA procedures is increasing. Therefore, there is justification for newer, more advanced behavioural management techniques using technology.

Virtual reality (VR) has been widely adopted in the medical healthcare setting as a successful method of distraction and preparation to help alleviate patient fears and anxiety. This has not yet transferred to the dental setting; however, a systematic review examined whether the use of VR or bespoke mobile dental applications prior to and during operative dental procedures helped to reduce anxiety in paediatric patients, in comparison with no intervention or conventional behavioural management techniques.

The review included a literature search of eight electronic databases and included randomised and non-randomised trials which identified anxiety as a primary or secondary outcome in the paediatric population (<18-year-olds).

Results from the literature search found only four RCTs which addressed the research question (three VR studies and one mobile app study). All four studies demonstrated a statistically significant decrease in pain and anxiety in paediatric patients compared with no intervention.

Interestingly, Zink et al found that using a mobile app significantly reduced the number of appointments required in a subpopulation of paediatric patients with autism spectrum disorder.

This review highlights that VR can be as successful in the dental setting as proved within the medical setting. VR can be an effective tool in the acclimatisation, preparation, education and distraction of patients. If paediatric patients can learn to accept treatment in the dental setting, this could be extremely beneficial in decreasing or potentially avoiding the need for GAs.

Although this is a particularly informative review, there is a paucity of data within this particular topic of advancing technology and thus further research in this field is warranted.

Research Summary written by: Raman Dehil (University of Manchester – BDS 2)

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