The Back Breaking Work of Dentistry

When you think about back breaking work, what comes to mind? A construction worker lifting heavy equipment over and over again? Maybe you think about nurses who are constantly on their feet, lifting and positioning patients. Perhaps you think about athletes who put their bodies through punishing workouts and insane amounts of stress and strain all for the glory of their sport.

But musculoskeletal injuries aren’t reserved for obviously physically challenging jobs. In fact, small repetitive movements, poor posture and pro-longed mundane actions, such as sitting or standing, can take a toll. One line of work that causes more work-related injuries than you might think is dentistry and orthodontics. Yep, huddling over someone’s gaping mouth for 8-10 hours a day doing painstakingly precise work can wear the body down.

A survey published in the Journal of the California Dental Association found that 61 percent of dentists had experienced work-related neck pain during the year, 51 percent reported lower-back problems, 44 percent said they had shoulder pain, 43 percent had upper-back pain, 38 percent had experienced hand pain and 30 percent mentioned mid-back pain.Dentist check up and repair tooth of young girl

And those that help dentists day in and day out, also experience aches and pains from all that bending, reaching, sitting, slouching, standing and twisting. A study published in the American Medical Journal of Industrial Medicine found that more than 90 percent of dental hygienists had experienced at least one musculoskeletal complaint in a 12-month period.


There are many elements of the dental profession that can cause musculoskeletal injuries. From standing or sitting in awkward, uncomfortable positions for prolonged periods of time, to repetitive reaching, twisting and turning, to sustained holding of small instruments, these actions can hurt.

When you think about it a little more thoughtfully, it really makes sense. Dentistry puts practitioners in plenty of odd positions so they can pull a tooth, scrape gums or complete a filling. All that leaning, grasping, hunching and pulling puts forceful exertion on muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints.

That stress and strain compounds over time. Dental literature reports somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of dental professionals suffer from work-related musculoskeletal issues, with 61 percent reporting regular pain, tingling or numbness.

Signs and symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders include:

  • Decreased range of motion
  • Loss of normal sensation
  • Decreased grip strength, cramping of hands
  • Loss of normal movement
  • Loss of coordination
  • Excessive fatigue in the shoulders and neck
  • Tingling, burning or other pain in the arms
  • Numbness in fingers and hands
  • Clumsiness and dropping of objects
  • Hypersensitivity in hands and fingers


There a many approaches to relieving musculoskeletal disorders in dentistry and orthodontics. An obvious solution is creating ergonomic treatment spaces with adjustable equipment that can better fit the environment to the worker.

Adjustable work surfaces, such as stools, platforms, swinging arms and dental chairs, can minimize repetitive movement and reduce poor or straining postures. Whether in a stool or chair, dentists, hygienists and technicians should be able to sit with their feet flat on the floor with their knees slightly below the hips.

Dental instruments, when at all possible, should have a round handle with hard edges, rather than hexagonal, to reduce stress on the hands and digital nerve compression. Good lighting and magnification can also go a long way to avoiding neck and back pain from straining.

Changing posture, whether by standing or stretching chair-side, is also key to keeping on-the-job aches and pains for dentists at bay. Hourly stretching of the spine by moving backward and forward if you’ve been standing up straight, or moving in the opposite direction of a posture you’ve been holding for a length of time, will help keep the muscles loose and avoid fatigue.

Of course, staying healthy at work means having good exercise habits and listening to your body. A physical therapist can help target persistent areas of discomfort, whether its back or neck pain, numbness in the hands or a loss of grip strength. Exercises that target the transverse, abdominal obliques and multifidus muscles can strengthen the back and reduce chronic pain. Similarly, prescribed exercises and movements for the neck and hands can correct cramping and fatigue in those areas of the body.

In 1990, it was estimated the annual loss of income to dental practitioners due to cumulative work-related pain was more than $41 million. Imagine what that figure is today. But now, more than ever before, there is help out there to get dentists and their staff comfortably back to work.


Interested in an assessment for your practice, call Julie Radan at 757.873.2302