Back pain is the number one reported health complaints in the entire world. It’s economical impact is staggering. Back pain results in billions of dollars of lost revenue and income, as well as extraordinary medical expenses and severe disability.
It is probably not surprising that back pain is also one of the top complaints of dental professionals. Up to 65% admit to practicing while suffering from back pain. Whether just starting out or a seasoned professional, it is likely that most dental practitioners are experiencing back pain.
Dental practitioners are at unique risk of acquiring this unwanted and often devastating impairment. Poor ergonomic practices combined with reduced proprioceptive awareness and poor strength create an environment perfect for the development of an injury.
While some factors which contribute to back pain not able to be modified, age, gender, anatomical abnormalities, two of the most significant factors are. Posture and muscle imbalances are two primary causes of back pain.
Poor posturing while practicing dentistry is a significant concern in the ergonomic industry. Poor posture reduces the body’s ability to counteract the stresses placed on the spine and supportive structures rendering it vulnerable to injury. Adjusting the environment to support good posture is a necessary step to reducing pain. Without this, pain symptoms may diminish temporarily, but will return soon after a return to work.
Muscle imbalances are the consequences of poor posture. Some muscles, specifically the erector spinae, become elongated after prolonged and repetitive poor posturing. Some muscles, typically the pectoral muscles, become shortened. Whether a muscle is elongated or shortened, it loses its mechanical advantage making normal functioning impossible. In other words, they just aren’t able to perform their primary tasks of supporting the spine and moving the body through its complete range of motion. Muscle imbalances must be identified and corrected with an appropriate program. Muscle balancing programs include strengthening weakened muscles, stretching shortened ones and improve muscle synergies for coordination .
Correcting the physical deficits of muscle imbalances while establishing a protective office environment is a process. It is unlikely most will be successful after taking just one ergonomics course or having a one time assessment. Anatomical changes and deeply rooted habits can make this process difficult.
Changing habits is difficult, but not impossible. Research indicates it takes as long as 66 days to form a new habit. That is over two months of considerable attention dedicated to the formation of a new technique which initially will seem more difficult. As challenging as it may be, this is the only path to practicing dentistry without back pain.
When comparing the cost and inconvenience of not working including lost income, premature retirement, disability, to the challenge of establishing a healthy practice, it may provide incentive to stick with it.
Remember, everyone is unique and may have special needs for their own recovery from back pain. This program is only a foundation. Seeking professional advice is always recommended.
Have you ever watched a professional basketball team? They move up and down the court as if they are one entity, anticipating every movement, every play, even every failed attempt.
Of course, professional basketball teams are only one example. Watch any professional team and it is easy to see that each member is committed to working with the others to accomplish the goal of winning.
A good team works tirelessly to create and keep critical synchronization. It doesn’t just happen.
If one team member is out with an injury or is not in sync with the rest of the team, the entire dynamic is changed. The team becomes inefficient and does not produce the desired results.
Is this so different from the practice of dentistry? A productive and efficient team is a healthy one. If one of the team members is forced to sit on the bench or has to reduce his/her playing time because of health concerns, how much does that effect the team? Every member of your dental team has a specific purpose and is incredibly important.
Professional sports teams mandate healthy routines for their players to ensure the highest level of performance. Creating a healthy environment for your team by encourage healthy eating, exercise, ergonomic education and so forth will produce a stronger and more productive team.
And who doesn’t want to be part of a strong and productive team?
If you don’t know how to get started with building your healthy dental team, download this free PDF for ideas.
Be Healthy and Practice Safely!
Most dental professionals miss the most important part of ergonomics. It is easy to buy chairs, loupes and equipment that offer promises of reduced pain and improved health. However, as I am sure you are more than aware, these promises are often empty.
You buy a chair that is labeled “ergonomic” only to find that at the end of the day your back is still hurting and now you have a shooting pain down your leg! You purchase loupes because you know how important they are for visualization and to maintain a correct posture and now your headaches are worse and you are exhausted at the end of the day. Sound familiar?
The typical response is to blame the product. It usually goes something like this:
“That chair was mislabeled and not ergonomic at all!”
“Loupes make your posture worse not better!”
My question to you is, why did you purchase that specific chair or that pair of loupes? Did you buy into the “ergonomic” labeling? Did you follow the recommendation of a colleague? Were you just searching for anything to help you feel better?
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you have missed the most important part of ergonomics for dental professionals.
Body awareness is the key to understanding what you need from your equipment. I have watched people purchase $1500 loupes with little insight into what their body actually needs. They rely heavily on the company representative who doesn’t know anything about them and has a superficial understanding of general ergonomics. The same is true for chairs, for delivery systems, for lighting systems, for electrical stimulation devices, for medical treatment plans to relieve pain, and so on.
How can you create a better body awareness while you are practicing dentistry?
Let’s face it, it requires a lot of brain power just to do your job. Your patients depend on you to be completely focused.
Creating body awareness while continuing to practice can be challenging, but not impossible. Just like when making any significant change in your life, you can start with small achievable goals, gradually improving your body awareness while practicing!
When you improve your body awareness, you will be able to accurately identify your problems and answer questions like:
Is there a particular task that I feel more uncomfortable performing?
How long am I able to maintain a good posture?
What tasks seem to require me to be in awkward positions?
At what time do I start experiencing pain?
Is my chair causing my issues?
With improved body awareness you will also be able to select appropriate correction such as:
I need a chair that has a shorter cylinder so that I am closer to the ground.
My loupes are too heavy, I need a lighter pair.
I find myself in awkward positions when I am working on #3, I need better lighting.
To help you improve your body awareness while practicing dentistry, I have created a free 6 week step by step program. Don’t worry, I won’t have you meditating naked in your front office for hours a day.
Each week you will receive an email with an assignment to improve your body awareness in the office. The first email will help you to use your morning huddle to kickstart your day.
Whether you choose to take part in this free program or not, it is essential that you know that without body awareness, ergonomic products may be a waste of money and time. Learning to pay attention to your body is the only way you will be able to make informed choices and create your healthy dental practice!
Be Healthy and Practice Safely!