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Bend and Stretch

42211348_xxl_PPDental professionals are plagued by bad backs, sore necks and aching shoulders, but Frank Leggett discovers there are effective ways to gain relief and prevent pain.

Seven years ago, Melbourne dentist Dr Anikó Ball was at the end of her tether. For the previous 30 years, she had endured chronic back, neck and shoulder pain. She lost sensation in her left hand for a period of months and frequently suffered from hip pain and sciatica. Despite her passion for practising periodontics and dental sleep medicine, she was seriously considering leaving the profession.

Dr Ball had tried traditional and complementary medical therapies in an attempt to find a cure but her problems continued to worsen. A range of seemingly untreatable musculoskeletal disorders was about to force another dentist into early retirement.

While Dr Ball’s symptoms were at the severe end of the spectrum, musculoskeletal pain is a common complaint right across the dental profession. One study found that over 87 per cent of dentists reported at least one symptom of musculoskeletal disease in the past 12 months. Another study in Greece showed that 62 per cent of dentists reported at least one musculoskeletal complaint while 30 per cent had chronic complaints.

Dr Ball recalls, “I spent 30-odd years trying to get help. I went to specialists, physiotherapists, masseuses, but nothing gave me long-term relief.”

A stroke of luck saw her visit a bookstore where she stumbled upon a book about the Alexander technique. It gave her hope of pain relief and within two weeks she was having an Alexander lesson. “I had severe neck problems from the time I was a dental student,” says Dr Ball. “In my second Alexander lesson, I learnt to release the tightness in my neck so my head could turn. I knew I was onto something good here.”

So, what’s the Alexander technique? Basically, it teaches posture and movement the way nature intended. Dr Ball explains, “The body has a specific biomechanical design but unfortunately, we don’t get a user guide when we’re born. We tend to pick up harmful posture and movement habits that we keep repeating and therefore damage our muscles, joints and spine.”

When people know where their joints are located and learn to release excessive muscle tension, the benefits are felt quickly. There’s a way of turning on your inner ergonomics so you engage the right muscles to support you against gravity without compressing the spine.

“Previously, whatever therapy I tried only helped me for a short time,” says Dr Ball. “I would feel good for a day or so but when you repeat faulty movement and posture patterns, the pain soon returns. The evidence-based Alexander technique deals with the cause, not just the symptoms.”

The Alexander technique, named after Frederick Matthias Alexander [1869-1955], allowed Dr Ball to continue dental practice. The quality of her life, both professional and private, had so dramatically improved that she also undertook a 1600-hour course at the Melbourne Alexander School and founded Optimum Dental Posture to help other dental professionals. In March this year, she addressed the 36th Australian Dental Congress about overcoming musculoskeletal disorders. 

“In my second Alexander lesson, I learnt to release the tightness in my neck so my head could turn. I knew I was onto something good here.” — Dr Anikó Ball, Optimum Dental Posture

Meanwhile, Dr Fern White, a dental surgeon and principal of Beacon Cove Dental in Port Melbourne, was another dentist suffering from a bad back and constant neck pain. “Dentistry requires you to sit in a sustained posture for long periods of time,” says Dr White.

“If you’re right-handed, you’re always going to favour and twist the body to that side. Then there is the stress associated with dentistry. Most patients come in with some anxiety and it’s not unusual for the dentist to absorb that. As you’re trying to put the patient at ease, you’re worrying about the upcoming procedure. The cumulative effect results in a sore back and shoulders. It’s rife across the dental industry.”

Dr White found the solution to her back problems with yoga. The movement helped the physical issues while mindfulness and stillness allowed her anxiety to be remedied. “It’s just letting all that energy of the day—all the anxiety and negativity—fall away,” says Dr White. “It’s your time to come back into yourself, meditate and just be mindful.”

The improvement yoga has made in Dr White’s career and personal life inspired her to become a qualified yoga and meditation teacher. She has some good advice for those contemplating giving yoga a try.

A friend was telling me the other day that they were in a car accident and had some shoulder pain because of it. Their insurance was messing them around with payouts. Maybe they need a new quote, Money Expert do some great quotes. click here to find out more. After the incident she told me that that yoga helped her a lot.

“A lot of people think yoga is a little airy-fairy or non-scientific based. They believe they have to go into a huge session and mediate under a yogi. Nothing could be further from the truth. People get into yoga because of the physical benefits. Then they start to realise that it’s actually quite relaxing and provides a bit of mindfulness and stillness at the end of the day.”

Dr White recommends Hatha yoga as the best place for dental professionals to start. “Find a good teacher who can tailor classes depending on what type of injuries are present. Ultimately, you want to do full-body incorporation, because although we think it’s just the shoulder, neck and head that’s involved, some of the issues can stem from not having enough core or leg strength to support the body.”

Dr Prue King is the owner of Lotus Dental on Sydney’s lower north shore and is also a practising yoga teacher. She believes that yoga has many tools for helping dentists relieve musculoskeletal pain and stress. “Yoga can help dental professionals relax at the end of the day and release the strain on the body created by being in one position for extended periods of time,” she says.

“While a lot of strain is put on the neck, shoulders and lower back, the hands and wrists can also suffer repetitive strain injury. Specific yoga exercises can be developed depending on the area where the strain is felt. Good relaxation and deep breathing will help dissipate accumulated stress.”

If you want to try yoga to alleviate a musculoskeletal injury, it’s advisable to find a qualified teacher and start with one-on-one instruction. “When working on an injured area, you don’t want to strengthen it too much until you have some flexibility and movement,” Dr King says.

The Alexander technique and yoga are two ways to address musculoskeletal pain that’s so common among dentists, dental nurses and hygienists. Not only can it make your working life more enjoyable, it can improve you general quality of life. “Staying flexible as you get older is something we should all strive for,” says Dr King. “After all, you’re only as young as your spine.”

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