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Self-care and the modern dental hygienist

Feb. 1, 2023
You only have one body and one mind. If you take care of your physical and mental health, you'll be in a better position to take care of your patients’ oral and dental needs.

As a dental hygienist, you’ve most likely experienced frustration, burnout, and your share of body aches and pains. You may see anywhere from eight to 14 patients a day. Your time spent in the dental office consists of assessing patients’ oral health, providing clinical care, educating patients on best oral care practices, and reducing patients’ dental anxieties.

But while you are diligently taking care of your patients, who’s taking care of you? You are a caregiver, and as a caregiver you often place the needs of your patients, employer, and family before your own. This can have detrimental effects on your vitality. As a modern hygienist, you may have children and pets, work full time, and even go to school. Your physical and mental health are crucial to your happiness and work performance, and you need to prioritize them.

The effects of neglect

Ignoring your physical health and mental well-being can result in injury such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), job dissatisfaction, burnout, and a shortened dental career.1 The continuous, precise, and repetitive movements of the job, along with hours of rigid and cumbersome posture, make dental hygienists susceptible to developing musculoskeletal disorders.2

The most common MSDs that affect hygienists are carpal tunnel syndrome, tension neck syndrome, trigger thumb, carpometacarpal osteoarthritis, thoracic outlet compression syndrome, and tendonitis.3 While dental hygienists require a certain level of stamina to meet the strenuous and physical demands of their jobs, MSDs can lead to severe pain, reduced work hours, and decreased productivity.

Ergonomics best practices

Preventive measures such as practicing proper ergonomics, improving efficiency during patient treatment, being aware of your posture, and modifying behavior may help reduce MSDs and the pain associated with them.4 Good ergonomics is comprised of keeping your spine in proper alignment while sitting in a neutral body position. Appropriately adjusting your chair and light and positioning your patient correctly can aid in maintaining correct posture. Utilizing ergonomic equipment such as a saddle stool can help maintain the natural curve of the spine during patient treatment.5

Improving efficiency may further help lessen the physical strain and time spent with each patient. Using dental loupes, ultrasonic scaler tips, and sharp, lightweight manual instruments can increase efficiency and influence working posture while decreasing the clinicians’ muscular output.6

Exercise for better health

It is also well documented that getting regular exercise is great for improving one’s overall health.7 While the effects of physical therapy, body massages, and practicing yoga have not been researched extensively in terms of preventing musculoskeletal disorders, one study reported dental hygiene students who practiced yoga routinely experienced a significant reduction of pain from MSDs.8

Many hygienists say they feel better and have less pain after receiving a massage or incorporating chiropractic treatment in their routine schedules. Another preventive measure for hygienists is to educate themselves about the effects of MSDs on their body and mind. With increased awareness, hygienists can take the necessary steps to modify behavior and help prevent or mitigate the severity of an injury.

Recent medical research demonstrated that on average, hygienists who take care of their mental and physical health have higher job satisfaction rates.9 The goal for every hygienist is to provide high-quality patient care but if you don’t take care of yourself first, it’s hard to take care of anyone else.

Recognize (and work with) your own limitations

Take the time to reflect on your total health and well-being. Take a moment each day to be mindful of your needs. Slow down. Pause. Breathe. Meditate. It is also worth the effort to incorporate quick stretching exercises in between patients. In one study, about 50% of dental hygienists reported stretching throughout the day to alleviate aches and pains.10

You also need to recognize your own limitations. The same way a general dentist will refer patients to an oral surgeon for extraction of wisdom teeth with apical encroachment on a mandibular nerve, you should also know that scheduling four SRPs back-to-back is not in the best interest of your body or your patient. Instead, try to stagger these appointments throughout your workday.

Work smarter, not harder

The pain from MSDs can adversely affect your work-life balance. The disruption of this balance can ultimately lead to increased stress levels, decreased work hours, a leave of absence, and even changing careers altogether.11 Knowing what facilitates a healthy work life for you can help you put things into perspective. This may include taking multiple short breaks throughout the day, working fewer days a week, or using more ergonomic equipment at work.

The objective is to work smarter, not harder. Once you figure out what your needs are, set your intention on it. Identify your goals, plan the course of action you need to take, and then implement it. Keep in mind you may need to revise your actions several times before you figure out what works best for you.


1. Rederienne G, Buunk-Werkhoven Y, Aidukaite G, Puriene A. Relationship between job satisfaction and health of hygienists in Lithuania. Int Den J 2021;123:1-3. doi:10.1016/j.identj.2021.07.005

2. Johnson CR, Kanji Z. The impact of occupation-related musculoskeletal disorders on dental hygienists. Canadian Dental Hygienists Association. Accessed January 24, 2023. https://files.cdha.ca/profession/journal/2242.pdf.

3. Harris ML, Sentner SM, Doucette HJ, Brillant MGS. Musculoskeletal disorders among dental hygienists in Canada. Can J Dent Hyg. 2020;54(2):61-67.

4. Yamalik, N, Turkey A. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and dental practice part 2. Risk factors for dentistry, magnitude of the problem, prevention, and dental ergonomics. Int Dent J 2007;57:45-54. doi:10.1111/j.1875-595x.2007.tb00117.x.

5. Lietz J, Ulusoy N, Nienhaus A. Prevention of musculoskeletal diseases and pain among dental professionals through ergonomic interventions: A systematic literature review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020; 17(10): 3482. doi:10.3390/ijerph17103482

6. Anshasi RJ, Alsyouf A, Alhazmi FN, AbuZaitoun AT. A change management approach to promoting and endorsing ergonomics within a dental setting. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022; 19(20): 13193. doi:10.3390/ijerph192013193

7. Ito S. High-intensity interval training for health benefits and care of cardiac diseases - the key to an efficient exercise protocol. World J cardiol. 2019; 11(7): 171–188. doi:10.4330/wjc.v11.i7.171

8. Monson A, Chismark A, Cooper B, Krenik-Matejcek T. Effects of yoga on musculoskeletalmpain. J Dent Hyg. 2017;91:15–22.

9. Hunt AW, Lintag-Nguyen K. Promote ergonomic health. Dimensions of Dental Hygiene. Accessed January 23, 2023. https://dimensionsofdentalhygiene.com/article/promote-ergonomic-health

10. Guignon AN, Purdy CM. Dental hygiene practice in North America – The physical, economic and workforce impact of musculoskeletal disorders among clinical dental hygienists. J Dent Hyg 2014;88:5.

11. Hunt AW, Lintag-Nguyen K. Promote ergonomic health. Dimensions of Dental Hygiene. Accessed January 23, 2023. https://dimensionsofdentalhygiene.com/article/promote-ergonomic-health

About the Author

Vilma Cordero, MHSc, BASDH, RDH

Vilma Cordero, MHSc, BASDH, RDH, is a licensed hygienist in the states of Florida and North Carolina with over 13 years of dental clinical experience. She holds a master of health science in health-care administration and a bachelor of applied science in dental hygiene. Vilma is the owner/operator of Practical Hygiene Solutions, a dental coaching and consulting company in North Carolina. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists' Association, American Dental Education Association, and the American Academy for Oral System Health.