The effectiveness of virtual reality for dental pain control: a case study

Cyberpsychol Behav. 2001 Aug;4(4):527-35. doi: 10.1089/109493101750527088.


The present study explored whether immersive virtual reality can serve as an effective non-pharmacologic analgesic for dental pain. Two patients (aged 51 and 56 years old) with adult periodontitis, a chronic, progressive inflammatory disease that affects gums, ligaments, and bones around the teeth, were studied in the treatment room of a periodontist. Each patient received periodontal scaling and root planing (scraping off/removing plaque deposits below the gum line, hereafter referred to as scaling) under three treatment conditions: (1) virtual reality distraction, (2) movie distraction, and (3) a no-distraction control condition. Condition order was randomized and counterbalanced. For each of the three treatment conditions, five visual analog pain scores for each treatment condition served as the dependent variables. On 0-10 labeled scales, both patients provided sensory and affective pain ratings, and subjective estimates of time spent thinking about his pain during the procedure. For patient 1, mean pain ratings were in the severe range while watching a movie (7.2), or no distraction (7.2) but in the mild pain range (1.2) during the VR condition. Patient 2 reported mild to moderate pain with no distraction (mean = 4.4), mild pain while watching the movie (3.3), and essentially no pain while in VR (0.6) during his periodontal scaling. Although the small sample size limits generalizability, we contend that virtual reality is a uniquely attention-grabbing medium capable of maximizing the amount of attention drawn away from the "real world," allowing patients to tolerate painful dental procedures. These preliminary results suggest that immersive VR merits more attention as a potentially viable adjunctive nonpharmacologic analgesia for procedural dental/periodontal pain. Virtual reality may also have analgesic potential for other painful procedures or pain populations. Practical implications are discussed.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesia*
  • Attention
  • Dental Anxiety / psychology
  • Dental Scaling / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Pain Measurement
  • Periodontitis / psychology
  • Periodontitis / therapy*
  • Root Planing / psychology*
  • Software
  • Therapy, Computer-Assisted*
  • User-Computer Interface*