Imagine you’re in the middle of a clinical procedure. Are your neck and upper back straining as you try to get a better view? Are your hands and wrists clenched and tense? Are your legs dangling or crossed? If you answered “yes,” you’re not alone.

Many people struggle to maintain good posture throughout the day. Unfortunately, bad posture can contribute to the development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis and muscle strain. For dentists and other dental professionals, MSDs are the leading cause for early retirement. At least 62% of dentists report one musculoskeletal complaint, with the most prevalent areas of pain being in the lower back and neck.

The good news is that you don’t need to accept pain as a part of your job. With proper ergonomics, you can identify and address work-related pain.

What is ergonomics?

Ergonomics is a philosophy that promotes designing workplaces to fit human needs so workers don’t need to strain to perform their jobs. The goal is to make you more efficient without compromising your safety. You can do this by maintaining a neutral position as much as possible and limiting tasks that cause strain. That means setting up workstations so everything you need is in reach or using special equipment, like footrests, to maintain a 90-degree bend in the knee.

Equipment can’t do all the work, though. State-of-the-art tools and gadgets should be paired with good posture to prevent potential MSDs. Practicing good posture is also the cheapest and quickest way to begin an ergonomic program.

What does good posture look like?

Unfortunately, careers in oral health are rife with opportunities to slouch and strain. To prevent MSDs, take note of these tips for good posture.

  • Spinal alignment. Maintain an erect, neutral spine instead of bending forward or leaning over the patient.
  • Proximity. Move your stool as close as possible to the patient’s head to minimize the need to overextend your arms or back.
  • Position. Keep your feet flat on the floor or the footrest of your stool. Adjust your stool height so your thighs slope slightly downward. Sit, rather than stand, for all clinical procedures. Hold your wrists in a neutral position and minimize wrist movement.
  • Weight distribution. Evenly distribute your weight in a tripod pattern, through each foot on the floor and your stool.
  • Equipment. Consider using a loupe to minimize the need to perch on the edge of your stool to see. If your overhead light is too dim or casts too many shadows, consider a head-mounted light as an alternative. Avoid gripping instruments tightly.
  • Stretching. When possible, take 10 minutes to get up and stretch your spine, arms and legs. Stretching during and after work can help relax strained muscles.
  • Exercise. Some poor posture habits begin with a weak core. Your core muscles act as a brace to your lower back when engaged, but using them all day can be exhausting. Train your core to make it easier to maintain good posture.

With tight schedules and productivity quotas, it can be difficult to prioritize time-consuming tasks like re-positioning patients. If you can’t eliminate strain, reducing it is still helpful. One easy way to reduce strain is to have your patients scoot to the end of the headrest once the chair is reclined. Eliminating those few inches between the top of their head and the top of the headrest shrinks the space for you to lean over.

The ergonomic office

For practice owners, investing in ergonomic training and supporting healthy practices has long-term benefits like preventing unwanted retirement, reducing canceled appointments and lessening the need for disability leave.

Ultimately, though, these suggestions are just the beginning. Most dental tools were developed with an average male dentist in mind, which may put people with smaller builds at a disadvantage. With ergonomics, there isn’t one solution to address every problem. You need to consider your and your team’s individual needs.

When implementing changes, remember to include the whole office. Your practice manager and front desk assistants also have ergonomic needs like monitor positioning and desk height. Encourage your team to communicate when they’re struggling with strain so that issues can be addressed early on. Approve time off to visit the doctor when needed. 

Even small changes can have a huge impact towards becoming an ergonomically healthy practice.