Researchers at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine will use a $462,964 grant from the National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research to test a method for quantifying tooth pain and develop a patient-friendly smartphone sensor that measures it.
Dr. I-Ping Chen, associate professor of endodontics, and Dr. Ki Chon, professor and chair of biomedical engineering, collaborated on the grant proposal.
As an endodontist, Chen cares for patients who need root canals. However, she and her colleagues heavily rely on these patients’ subjective opinions to gauge their level of pain. Chen was looking for a better way to detect dental 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 had used a commercially available device in his lab that can detect the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is how 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,” said Chen, identifying one aim of the joint grant proposal.
However, Chon’s device is the size of a laptop.
“The device is already commercially available,” Chon said. “The problem is that we have to miniaturize it,” which is the other aim of the grant proposal.
Chon will work on a small, smartphone-based sensor and application that works with the electrodermal device. He also will work with Chen to test it on patients, collect data, and determine if it is effective and reliable. The project will take place over the next two years.
If all goes well, Chen and Chon hope providers and their patients will use the device in dental offices to get a more accurate, quantitative measurement of patient pain and 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,” Chen said.
“The innovation is the analysis that we have, and how we process the data and measure pain quantitatively,” said Chon. “That’s the potential.”