Ergonomics and wellness at work
Tips for relieving and preventing the aches and pains of working as a dental professional
Does your body hurt more than usual?
Dentistry has always been a profession that taxes the mind and the body. But you may be noticing a few more physical aches and pains lately, especially if you are hand scaling—instead of using ultrasonics—to reduce aerosol production.
If you’re like most dentists, it’s not just your hands, wrists, and arms that hurt. Your daily work can also take a toll on your back, neck, shoulders, and legs. Dentists are at risk for conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive motion injuries, and even chronic headaches.
This pain can strike at any point during your career: Between 64% and 93% of dental professionals experience general musculoskeletal pain. In fact, musculoskeletal disorders are the leading reason for early retirement among dentists.
What causes musculoskeletal pain and how can you prevent it?
Repeat the same motions from patient to patient, day in and day out, often in awkward positions is a recipe for pain and physical disorders that can derail a career.
Here are three ways to avoid pain and repetitive stress injuries:
- Better positioning (for yourself and your patients)
- Ergonomic instruments and equipment
- Simple wellness exercises
Proper posture and patient positioning
The less bending, hunching, twisting, craning, leaning, or reaching you do, the less tension you’ll put on your muscles, joints, and bones.
The proper position for working with a patient is seated, with your spine in a neutral position and your shoulders relaxed. Work as close to the patient as possible to avoid overextending your arms or back, and always face the patient.
Keep your feet flat on the floor and adjust your stool’s height so your thighs slope slightly downward. Think of yourself as a tripod, with your weight evenly distributed through each foot and your buttocks.
If you need a better view of the patient’s oral cavity, ask the patient to turn their head, and use HD mirrors to improve visibility. Keep your instruments at roughly arm’s height and within a 21-inch radius of yourself.
The patient’s body position also has a tremendous impact on your ergonomics. According to RDH Magazine, the patient should ideally be positioned supine for treating the upper arch and semi-supine for the lower arch, but this practice is often impractical due to time constraints.
Instead, they recommend positioning the back of the patient’s chair at a 10- to a 15-degree angle from the floor. Then, use a contoured dental neck cushion to achieve the proper orientation of the occlusal plane.
Be sure to ask your patients to scoot to the end of the headrest. This will eliminate the need to reach over the empty space on the headrest.
Ergonomic instruments and equipment
Ergonomics should be a key consideration when choosing dental instruments and equipment for your practice.
The Operator Stool
From an ergonomic perspective, the operator stool is the most important chair in the treatment room. Proper positioning begins by adjusting the stool first and the patient second.
Your stool should be adjustable, with adequate lumbar, thoracic, and arm support. It should allow for a space of three finger-widths behind your knee. If your stool has a tilting feature, tilt the seat forward between 5 and 15 degrees. (If not, use an ergonomic wedge cushion.)
Saddle-seat stools may be the ideal option – especially for shorter people. This type of stool maintains your pelvis in a neutral position and allows the optimal curve of your spine.
Another helpful piece of ergonomic equipment is a loupe with a built-in headlight. Loupes provide magnification so you don’t have to bend to see the patient’s oral cavity better. Headlights move with your gaze, eliminating the need (and annoyance) to continually readjust the overhead light.
The instruments you choose can also make a significant difference. Look for an instrument with an ideal weight and large diameter that provides a textured grip surface. These instruments will be easier to maneuver and cause less hand fatigue while probing, scaling, and root planing.
The science behind ergonomic design matters too. The new Harmony Ergonomic Scalers and Curettes are a good example.
The result of a cutting-edge iterative research and development process that analysed over 2.8 million data points, the Harmony Scaler reduces pinch force up to 65% and pressure on the tooth by 37%. The handle features a recessed double-helix texture for optimal tactile sensitivity with less tactile fatigue. The silicone grip has been extended 30% to provide a secure and nimble grasp.
Another important factor in instrument ergonomics is the sharpness of the blade. Sharp scalers require less force to do the same amount of work, which can help both you and your patient be more comfortable.
Harmony Scalers and Curettes feature EverEdge 2.0 Technology. With EverEdge 2.0 Technology, working ends are 72% sharper out-of-the-box than the next leading competitor and remain 50% sharper after 500 strokes.
Wellness exercises to relieve and prevent pain
Before you undertake any physical activity—from a morning run to a day of treating patients—it’s always a good idea to warm up your joints and muscles. Dental hygiene blogger Whitney DiFoggio (writing as “Teeth Talk Girl”) recommends a set of daily stretches for dental professionals that target the wrists, neck, shoulders, and back.
DiFoggio writes that she tries to stretch as often as possible, between appointments and any time there’s a chance to move around. “A great time to stretch is when you’re going in and out of the room to take an FMX,” she says.
A regular yoga practice can also help you maintain your fitness for work—and you don’t have to attend in-person classes to reap the benefits. Countless high-quality yoga videos are available for free online, such as the popular Yoga With Adrienne series on Amazon Prime. Notably, this series includes a video of yoga tips for the hands.
You’re not suffering alone
Keep in mind there’s no shame in feeling pain, and you’re far from the only one to experience this. The good news is that a few changes to your routine, posture, instruments, or fitness regimen can do wonders for your body and can potentially add years of injury-free practice to your career.
- Mj Hayes 1, D Cockrell, D R Smith, A systematic review of musculoskeletal disorders among dental professionals, Int J Dent Hyg. 2009 Aug;7(3):159-65.
- Manohar Bhat, Tahir Mohammed, Nikita Bansal, and Gaurav Gupta, Ergonomics in Dentistry, Int J Clin Pediatr Dent. 2014 Jan-Apr; 7(1): 30–34
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