When it comes to the world of routine healthcare, dentists tend to be the unsung heroes of the hour. The notion of pain and dentistry seem to have gone hand in hand since the dawn of time, even though the life’s work of your dentist is to do everything possible to keep you free from pain.
And in doing that, there’s a good chance your dentist is laying his or her own body on the line for you, putting it through a series of ongoing contortions that are necessary to enable them to reach the problem or issue in your mouth, but which put their neck, back and shoulders under the kind of physical stress they weren’t designed to take on a continuous basis.
In fact, the musculoskeletal demands that dentistry makes on the body of a dentist are significant. A recent study carried out in Denmark showed that 65% of dentists reported neck and shoulder problems, with 59% also reporting lower back pain.
The researchers linked that back to previous studies which had shown that the work of dentists specifically has a unique result in posture – basically, that dentists work with prolonged static muscle activity in the back and shoulders, routinely experience prolonged upper arm abduction and suffer through prolonged neck flexion.
So, if you’re a dentist, what does all that actually mean?
The short and slightly glib answer is that it means pain, and sometimes quite a lot of pain. But here’s the science.
Static muscle activity is where the muscle is contracted but there’s no movement. An example might be wheeling a heavy barrow, holding a picture against a wall for a long period or, in this context, hunching over a supine patient while you work inside the mouth.
Abduction is the prolonged extension of the arm at an angle away from the body – for dentists, this is an obvious posture issue. Neck flexion is essentially where the head is held at an unnatural angle, for example when you’re craning to see inside the mouth of a patient.
Still, more research shows that dentists spend roughly two-thirds of their day in these positions. Call that four hours or so a day. That’s 20 hours a week. Put another way, if you’re a dentist, you’re going to spend the equivalent of 117 whole working days in those positions.
Which is a lot. Certainly more than your body was designed for, certainly enough to give you very real musculoskeletal problems.
So, what’s the answer?
Healthcare professionals are notorious for not giving themselves the benefit of their own advice and knowledge when it comes to their own wellbeing, so having a proper physical assessment by a qualified physiotherapist would be a good first step for any dentist.
That would mean you’d have a complete picture of where your body is under stress, how to resolve any issues or symptoms you’re currently experiencing, and you’d then get advice and treatment to help mitigate the impact of your job.
But what about the day to day things you can do to look after yourself? Here are some simple things to bear in mind that will help to protect your muscles, joints and ligaments while you’re busy keeping other people out of pain (and these are good tips for everybody, not just dentists):
- Alternate between standing and sitting wherever possible. Much of a dentist’s work is done from a sitting position and it’s not always possible to work standing up – but where you do have that opportunity, take it.
- Mix and match your appointments. Try not to schedule longer appointments back to back and actively try to schedule shorter appointments before and after those that involve lengthy treatment.
- Keep your posture as normal as possible as often as possible. That means being aware of things like the static muscle activity, arm abduction and prolonged flexion we mentioned earlier, and actively untensing and returning a better posture whenever you can during an appointment.
- Use support as much as you can. If you’re sitting, take all opportunities to sit with your back straight or supported by the back of a chair. If standing, having something to lean against when you can will help take the pressure off your body.
- Use comfortable equipment. Naturally, as a healthcare professional, you’ll want to use the best possible kit to deliver your treatment. But if you can, choose lighter and/or more ergonomically beneficial equipment to give your body the best chance of being protected.
In the end, dentists need to look after themselves with as much dedication as they look after their patients – and that starts with understanding the demands they’re making on their bodies and how to mitigate the risks.
If you’re a dentist and would like to speak to us about physiotherapy for dentists – or if you’d just like some advice about other steps you can take to look after yourself – please get in touch.