Working with chronic pain is a very real possibility in the clinical career of a dental hygienist; however, pain does not have to mean the end of your career in dentistry. Proper ergonomic adjustments like the use of appropriate tools, adjustable seating, proper operator positioning and pre-procedural stretching are essential for prevention and reducing the risk of working with chronic pain. If you've invested years, heart and soul into your dental hygiene career but are considering a shift for your health and comfort, there are ways to work with chronic pain without abandoning your passion for improving and maintaining patients' healthy smiles.
A dental hygienist working full time may see eight to 12 patients per day depending on the practice environment. Assisted hygiene and the use of multiple operatories can increase this number. With the pressure to stay on schedule and deliver quality care, many dental hygienists find themselves ignoring a twinge or working with chronic pain for many years. Common sources of pain include carpal tunnel syndrome and musculoskeletal disorders that affect the upper and lower back, neck and shoulders. Always consult a physician if you have recurrent chronic pain.
A study on ergonomics in the dental practice is reported in the International Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry which states that awkward postures, repetitive motions and long periods of continuous work are common causes of chronic pain in dental professionals.
When performing scaling and root planing procedures, for example, it is critical to decrease the chances of hand fatigue by keeping your instruments freshly sharpened, using functional tips for sonic or ultrasonic inserts, maintaining proper operator positioning and stretching your fingers and hands. A study reported by the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research concludes that performing finger stretches before scaling and root planing procedures may help reduce finger and hand fatigue, significantly decreasing the chances of developing a musculoskeletal disorder. Other ways to help prevent chronic pain include using a properly fitted saddle stool for the health of your back and hips and wearing sturdy, supportive shoes to protect your feet and knees.
While you can work on preventing chronic pain, it may still happen and it's hard to predict if or when you develop chronic pain. If you do suffer chronic pain, it doesn't have to end your career. Clinical dental hygiene is not the only option for a dental hygienist. The American Dental Hygienists' Association reminds dental hygienists that other fulfilling options to explore include public health administration, scientific research, dental hygiene education and entrepreneurial ventures like starting a dental practice management business.
Dental hygienist roles are also expanding. Managed care organizations sometimes recruit dental hygienists for management and training positions. Dental product suppliers often hire dental hygienists as educators and trainers. Finally, dental hygienists can find opportunities as program directors in state oral health programs and school sealant programs.
Earning a bachelor's degree or an advanced degree can create additional pathways in your career. Most states require a minimum of a two-year degree from an accredited dental hygiene program along with a state license to practice clinical dental hygiene. For classroom and clinical education, dental hygienist instructors are usually required to have at a minimum a four-year degree.
- Help prevent pain by practicing proper operator positioning, using adjustable seating and appropriate instruments, and stretching before procedures.
- Consider alternative career paths like research or administration if working with chronic pain becomes too difficult.
- Pursue degree advancement to increase career opportunities.
Chronic pain does not have to end your dental hygiene career. Keep the passion for creating and maintaining happy and healthy smiles by seeking ways to help prevent and manage chronic pain, and research non-clinical career opportunities if the need arises.