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MANSFIELD, Conn., U.S.: In the hope of finding a better way to detect dental pain, a team of scientists at the University of Connecticut (UConn) is currently looking into a novel way to quantify tooth pain and to develop a patient-friendly smartphone sensor to measure it. The researchers, from the Division of Endodontology and Department of Biomedical Engineering at the UConn School of Dental Medicine, recently received a grant to fund this.
Dr. I-Ping Chen, associate professor of oral health and diagnostic sciences, and Dr. Ki Chon, professor and chair of biomedical engineering, collaborated on the proposal, which attracted a $462,964 grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. As an endodontist, Chen cares for patients in need of root canal therapy. However, she and other dentists rely heavily on a patient’s subjective opinion to gauge the patient’s level of pain.
“Relying on patient response, which is more subjective, can be problematic, especially when patients can’t communicate with their providers—like children, disabled patients, and patients with language barriers,” said Chen.
Chen learned that Chon was using a commercially available device in his laboratory that can detect the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the way the body registers pain. The device is currently used to detect the conductivity of skin, which has the potential to reflect the effects of changes in pain level on a patient. Using this quantitative measurement for dental diagnosis and dental pain detection is a novel concept.
“I knew Ki had this device, and I was looking for something to measure toothache. After talking to Ki, we thought we could actually use this in dental patients,” Chen explained, identifying one aim of the joint grant proposal.
There is one problem though: The device is the size of a laptop. “The device is already commercially available,” Chon announced. “The main task is that we have to miniaturize it,” which is the other aim of the National Institutes of Health proposal.
With the grant, Chon will work on a small smartphone-based sensor and application that works with the electrodermal device. In the meantime, Chon will work alongside Chen to test it on patients, collect data and determine whether the smartphone sensor is an effective and reliable device. The project will take place over the next two years.
If all goes well, the two researchers hope that this device will be able to be used by both providers and their patients in dental offices to gain a more accurate, quantitative measurement of patient pain and be able to provide care accordingly.
“For the future, if this can be a validated diagnostic tool, I would imagine that providers would get this device,” said Chen. “I think the long-term goal is that patients can use their smartphone, and they would just download the app and measure pain from home. They would send the result back to their dentist and their dentist would assign the right painkiller.”
“The innovation is the analysis that we have, and how we process the data and measure pain quantitatively,” Chon added. “That’s the potential.”
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