Exercising the possibilities

Feb. 1, 2006
It is impossible in today’s world to avoid the news about exercise. Sound bites appear regularly on television and radio broadcasts.

It is impossible in today’s world to avoid the news about exercise. Sound bites appear regularly on television and radio broadcasts. Feature articles abound in lay magazines as well as professional periodicals.

Every one of us knows that static blood flow in the oral cavity has a tremendous impact on soft tissue health. Poorly controlled diabetic patients, fraught with circulation problems, do not heal as well as our patients who do not have this type of challenge.

Inadequate blood flow in the oral cavity can lead to tissue death. A periodontal soft tissue graft that does not establish a good blood supply is destined for failure. Bone that loses adequate blood flow becomes necrotic.

Improving circulation is just one benefit derived from regular physical exercise. Exercise has other positive outcomes that include greater endurance, increased muscle strength and flexibility, lower blood pressure, higher levels of HDL (good cholesterol), improved bone density, and better weight-control management.

Along with the obvious physical benefits, regular exercise boosts the energy level, helps one manage stress, and reduces tension. In addition to helping one fall asleep faster, those that exercise regularly often enjoy a sounder, more restful sleep. Numerous research studies show that endorphins, the body’s own natural mood enhancer, are released after sufficient exercise.

With all of these benefits, you would think that we, as prevention specialists, would be figuring out how to fit some type of exercise into our daily routine. Granted, there are many dental professionals who make physical exercise an important part of their daily routine, but there are certainly countless others who shortchange their bodies every day. This is not intended to be a guilt trip, but rather a wake-up call for all of us who need to be more mindful of scheduling some regular physical activity into our daily lives. I’ll be the first to admit that my level of physical activity could go up a notch or two.

The excuses we give range from not enough time, lack of facilities, poor weather, or cost of equipment. This is quite interesting since the reasons for not exercising regularly are similar to the ones given by dental hygienists who do not participate in continuing education activities regularly.

If one removes the actual patient from the formula, bare-bones dental hygiene practice is physically taxing and mentally numbing. Scraping teeth is hard work. There is nothing emotionally stimulating about removing plaque biofilm.

Add the patient back into the formula and turn your brain on. Now the experience can be quite stimulating. Each patient has unique complexities, challenges, and special attributes. Treating a patient as a whole person exercises our brain cells, just like solving an ever-changing puzzle.

Learning new things is a surefire way to ward off mental stagnation in dental hygiene. It is hard to stay bored and unenthusiastic if your brain is full of new information on how to better assess or treat patients.

Unfortunately, there are dental hygienists who are content to practice every day with the information and skills that they learned in school. When challenged with new ideas, techniques, or therapeutic or diagnostic products, these hygienists resort to the “but that’s not what I learned in school” mind-set. That seems like a flimsy excuse, especially if one graduated more than six months ago. School is just the launching pad. School provides us with basic skills and the ability to apply critical thinking to a given situation. It would be impossible to learn everything you need to know about dental hygiene practice in your formal academic program. If for no other reason, continuing education of some sort is vital to keep your career up to speed.

Quite honestly, there is nothing that I do or use in today’s treatment room that is the same as what I was educated to do 34 years ago. Two-by-twos are no longer cotton-filled gauze packets. Mirror handles are fatter. Ultrasonic scalers are the instruments of choice for biofilm removal, and every treatment is not a prophy. The list could go on and on. Times have changed and so must we. This doesn’t mean that you have to abandon everything that you learned, but begin to exercise those critical thinking skills taught in every dental hygiene program.

Just like starting a successful long-term program of physical exercise, find an appealing subject. If the walking or biking bores you or learning about the advancements in periodontics seems like a real sleeper, search for alternatives. Yoga or Pilates may be just the key to enjoying physical exercise. Maybe biking or belly dancing sounds more interesting.

Perhaps the emerging science of minimally invasive dentistry/dental hygiene will keep you mentally stimulated for months on end. Maybe it’s time to learn about the plethora of new pit-and-fissure sealant products. The days of two-step, acid-etch, dry-field-only sealants are over. Did you know that there are sealant products that bond directly to teeth without traditional acid etching? There are also products that release fluoride over time or can be applied in a moist environment.

It’s probably time to learn more about taking care of yourself ergonomically so you can remain in this profession longer. Many hygienists are now using magnification loupes, ergonomic chairs, lightweight handpieces, contemporary ultrasonic scalers, and more ergonomically designed hand instruments. Every hygienist I’ve ever met who has started taking better care of themselves agrees that this was a pivotal point in increasing career satisfaction.

Twenty-five years ago, continuing education was barely fashionable. With the advent of mandatory continuing education, the possibility of learning more became easy. Courses started to pop up everywhere. Continuing education is now big business. With electronic media and the Internet, there is really no excuse for remaining stagnant in your professional career. Continuing education experiences can be found in journals, through hands-on courses, in schools, traditional lecture formats, interactive studies, on-line chats, home study instructional manuals, and various video formats. Take time to digest what you are learning. Don’t be afraid to question the information. Patients and your co-workers will be able to tell if you are only partially committed to implementing what you are learning.

Just like physical exercise, learning is not a passive process. It requires effort, brain cells, and a positive attitude.These changes do not come overnight. Much like the endorphins released after significant physical exercise, continuous life-long learning becomes a habit that results in a much happier and satisfying career.

Spring is the perfect time to begin or recommit to exercising both your brain and body. The weather gets warmer and the days are longer, making a walk in the park all the more enjoyable. Numerous continuing education opportunities spring up from February to May, just like flowers popping out of the ground.

It’s time to look around at the possibilities and nurture your dental hygiene body and spirit with new physical and mental activities that can create a more satisfying comfort zone.