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Make self-care a priority—or pay the cost

Feb. 22, 2022
Your self-care is just as important as the care you provide for your patients. It's at the center of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, so learn to practice what you preach.

In a profession where you devote energy, skill, and emotion to patient care, do you devote the same to your own well-being? From my experiences and listening to my colleagues, it’s obvious to me that dental hygienists’ commitment to self-care is often their last priority. Perhaps this is because we’re skilled in assessing and meeting the needs of others first. Perhaps it is because our families depend on our care. Perhaps we simply have little energy left after caring for others to devote any to ourselves. But everyone reading this needs to commit to making self-care a top priority. 

My own wakeup call came during an encounter with a patient many years ago. I realized I had allowed my self-care to fall to the lowest rung on the ladder. I was about to seat the patient when she paused, looked at me with concern, and said, “Karen, what’s happened to you? You look like you’ve aged 10 years since I saw you last.” (The fact that she maintained a regular four-month interval added insult to injury.) 

Granted, it was indeed a stressful period in my life. However, her brutal honesty definitely got my attention. On my drive home I had time to consider what I could do differently to better care for myself, and I immediately thought of daily stretching, regular massages, and more rest as places to start. Whatever the reasons that make self-care elusive for so many of us, it is worthwhile to think about how to routinely commit to self-care. 

The price of ignoring self-care is too costly. Consider these population trends from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the health of Americans from 2000 to 2018:1 obesity increased from 30.5% to 41.2%, diabetes increased from 10.9% to 15.9%, cancer increased from 4.9% to 7.0%, and heart disease increased from 10.9% to 11.8%. 

Just like dental caries and periodontal diseases, the risk factors for obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease can be decreased with lifestyle interventions. Self-care is at the center of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. For dental hygienists engaged in clinical care, the stressors of time management, caregiving, and ongoing ergonomic challenges warrant a clear plan for daily self-care to balance the toll this profession takes on our minds, bodies, and emotions. For those engaged in academia, corporate, public health, sales, or training, it’s important to remember that most dental hygienists suffer from some level of perfectionism, and the drive to perform at a high level must be balanced with rest and rejuvenation. 

Self-care strategies and benefits

Find the strategies that resonate with you, then commit to excellent self-care in addition to the exceptional care you provide to your patients. 

  • Regular stretching keeps muscles long, lean, and flexible to help reduce muscle tension.2 Break up intense days of sitting with back, neck, arm, and hamstring stretches.
  • Sleeping regularly for seven hours appears to be the sweet spot for adequate rest. Adopting good sleep habits such as sleeping in a dark, cool environment, limiting caffeine, and reducing lights from devices a few hours prior to sleep is equally important for our bodies to rejuvenate while we sleep.3,4
  • Limiting sugar consumption to align with the American Heart Association recommendations of 36 grams per day for men and 25 grams per day for women can help reduce overall risk for chronic diseases.5
  • According to the American College of Sports Medicine, vigorous-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes per day for a total of at least 150 minutes per week, as well as resistance exercises two to three days per week, have long-term physical and mental benefits.6

During the past decade, much has been published about the benefits of lifestyle adjustments to enhance both quality of life and mortality. Consider this data published in 2013 against the backdrop of your own self-care: “Unhealthy lifestyle behaviors are at the root of the global burden of noncommunicable diseases and account for about 63% of all deaths. Although a healthy lifestyle has repeatedly been shown to improve mortality, the population prevalence of healthy living remains low.”7 

Only you can prioritize self-care and a healthy lifestyle. Before we advocate healthy lifestyles to patients, we should begin with ourselves.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the February 2022 print edition of RDH magazine.


  1. At-a-glance-table. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed Dec. 9, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus/ataglance.htm
  1. The importance of stretching. Harvard Health. September 25, 2019. Accessed December 9, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-importance-of-stretching 
  1. Watson NF, Badr MS, Belenky G, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Sleep. 2015;38(6):843–844 
  1. How much sleep do I need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed Dec. 9, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html
  1. Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism and the Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. August 24, 2009. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.192627 
  1. Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43(7):1334-1359. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318213fefb. PMID: 21694556 
  1. Kushner RF, Sorensen KW. Lifestyle medicine: the future of chronic disease management. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2013;20(10):389-395. doi: 10.1097/01.med.0000433056.76699.5d. PMID: 23974765