Spinal Hygiene for Dental Professionals
Neck and low back pain have become synonymous with the delivery of dental care.
Many dentists and dental hygienists will retire early or take more sick days because of musculoskeletal pain as a result of the nature of their work. You likely want a long and productive career as a dental professional. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to manage and prevent these problems. First, it’s important to understand why these issues occur.
What causes work-related muscle and joint pain for dentists and dental hygienists?
Our bodies are meant to move, but the practice of dentistry often requires staying in one position for a prolonged period of time. Additionally, depending on the area of the oral cavity being worked on, it can often pull the clinician into an awkward forward-leaning position. These factors together can cause stress on the spine and joints. Certain muscles will start to overcompensate, and the joints are being deprived of the nourishment they need to be healthy.
Pain is often the last symptom to appear when there is a mechanical problem. The early signs of a musculoskeletal disorder include feeling a loss of flexibility or range of motion (which can seem unimportant and easy to ignore!). When these early symptoms are unaddressed, the repeated stress leads to a repetitive strain injury. These types of injuries sometimes come on suddenly after a seemingly ordinary activity, even sleeping. Everybody experiences these in different ways; the area and intensity of your pain can be influenced by your history of injuries and unique structure. Like a cavity, the presence of pain indicates a deeper issue that takes more work to resolve.
These problems are common, but not normal. Here are some practical steps you can take to maintain and manage your musculoskeletal health:
Targeted stretching and strengthening exercises
Dental professionals deal with a common postural strain problem called upper and lower cross syndromes. Simply put, this is a pattern of tight muscles that generally need to be stretched, and weak muscles that need to be strengthened.
Strengthening exercises should be focussed on endurance-type exercises. This is defined as exercises that require low weights, and a higher number of repetitions. This is helpful because you need to train your body in a fashion that is most similar to how you work – light demand for a long period of time.
Aerobic exercise (activities that elevate your heart rate) is also helpful for promoting good circulation to your muscles and joints. Choose an activity that you enjoy and can easily commit to doing on a regular basis. Biking, swimming, and running are all great options.
For tight muscles, it is imperative that you incorporate chairside stretching into your routine at work. Stretch as often as you can! There is also a variety of mobility tools you can use at home that will help address muscle knots you might be experiencing. Some examples are foam rollers or Tune Up Therapy Balls (available for sale in our clinic). Make a point of using these tools even when you aren’t actively experiencing pain – just because you don’t feel pain does not mean the muscle knots aren’t there! To receive a series of exercises tailored to dental professionals, contact us here.
Maintain good posture as often as possible
What is “good posture” for the dental professional?
The name of the game is neutral spine, meaning we want to avoid any excessive curvature (i.e. slouching in the low back, shoulders rolling forward, forward head carriage). There are 2 key tools that help you achieve this: your dental stool and your loupes.
Ideally, you want to be positioned with your feet flat on the ground, stool slightly elevated so that you have a greater than 90 degree angle at the hips (thighs should be sloping downward at a 45 degree angle, not parallel to the floor!). Saddle stools are often the easiest way to achieve this. Having a back rest is also helpful, and you want to avoid perching yourself on the edge of your seat. It can take some trial and error to find a stool that works well with your body type.
When used correctly, loupes help you maintain safe neck working posture in the operatory. If you’re finding yourself having to crane your neck forward to be able to look through the scopes, the scope positioning is likely too high relative to your pupils. To maintain a neutral spine, you want to be able to primarily look down with your eyes and require minimal head movement. Look for loupes that are lightweight and have a steep declination angle. Take your time when shopping for new loupes and get a professional fitting.
In certain scenarios, it might not be possible to maintain “perfect posture”. That is okay! Strive to maintain good posture for the majority of your working time and stretch often. A big component of correcting poor posture is awareness and retraining your body to build a new habit. Ask your receptionist to take a photo of you working when you are not aware – you might be surprised with what you see!
Ever notice that as your stress levels increase, so does your muscle and joint pain?
Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, massage therapy, or anything that helps you get grounded are important practices to incorporate in your self-care routine. Maintain good sleep hygiene so your mind and body have a chance to recuperate. A good mattress and pillow are essential to allow your spine to recover from the physical stresses of your workday!
As dental professionals, you know the value of prevention as the best medicine with your patients. This is just as applicable to your spinal health! A daily regimen of stretching and strengthening exercises, good habits in the operatory, as well as regular check-ups from your chiropractor, physiotherapist, or massage therapist, will go a long way in helping you maintain your ability to work. Contact us to have our musculoskeletal health experts keep you feeling and moving well.
Imagine what our teeth would look like if we waited until we were in pain to get a check-up with dental professionals!
Don’t wait until you’re in pain to start looking after your body.