Radiculopathy

In previous posts, we’ve discussed chronic pain, including how chronic conditions can affect dentists.  Dentists and surgeons have strenuous jobs that require them to hold unnatural and static positions for extended periods of time, putting stress on their musculoskeletal systems.  Consequently, it is not uncommon for dentists and surgeons to experience spinal issues, including radiculopathy.  In this post we will examine the causes, diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment of radiculopathy.

Overview

Radiculopathy is a condition caused by a compressed nerve in the spinal column. This pinched nerve can occur at any spot in the spine, but is typically found in the cervical or lumbar portions of the back and, less frequently, in the thoracic spine.  Symptoms vary based on where the nerve roots are compressed; however, the roots typically become inflamed and cause numbness, weakness, and pain. Those suffering from radiculopathy can find it difficult or impossible to function with the same level of dexterity they used to have.

Symptoms

Generalized symptoms of radiculopathy include:

  • Sharp or shooting pains in the back, arms, legs, or shoulders that may worsen during certain activities
  • Weakness or loss of reflexes in the arms or legs
  • Numbness of the skin or “pins and needles” sensations in the arms or legs
  • Some individuals develop a hypersensitivity to light touch at the affected areas

The location of and specific symptoms will vary based on where the compressed nerve occurs:

  • Cervical Radiculopathy: Pressure on a nerve root in the neck. Symptoms include weakness, burning or tingling sensations, or loss of feeling in the shoulder, arm, hand, or fingers.
  • Lumbar Radiculopathy: Pressure on a nerve root in the lower back. Symptoms include pain, weakness, or numbness that starts in the lower back and radiates through the buttocks down the back of the leg.
  • Thoracic Radiculopathy: A pinched nerve in the upper/mid back. Symptoms include pain in the chest or torso, which can be mistaken for shingles.

Causes

Radiculopathy is caused by the irritation or compression of the nerves where they exit the spine.  This compression can occur in several ways:

  • Disc herniation, osteophytes (bone spurs), osteoarthritis, or the thickening of the surrounding ligaments
  • Scoliosis
  • Inflammation due to trauma or degeneration
  • Conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and obesity
  • Poor posture and/or repetitive movements
  • Aging
  • Genetic pre-disposition

Diagnosis

In order to diagnose radiculopathy, a physician will perform a medical history review and physical examination. The examination will include an evaluation of muscle strength, sensation, and reflexes to detect any abnormalities.  Additional imaging may be required, including:

  • X-rays: to identify trauma, osteoarthritis, or early signs of a tumor or infection
  • MRI or CT scan: to look at the soft tissues around the spine (nerves, discs, ligaments, etc.)
  • Electromyogram (EMG) and nerve conduction studies: to look at electrical activity along the nerve to identify any damage

Treatments:

The course of treatment for radiculopathy will usually start out conservative, but more aggressive treatment may be needed when pain persists.

  • Medications
  • Weight loss (if necessary) to reduce pressure on problem areas
  • Physical therapy
  • Avoiding activity that causes strain on the neck or back
  • Chiropractic treatment
  • Epidural steroid injection
  • Surgery to remove the compression on the spine

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose. Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

MedicineNet, https://www.medicinenet.com/radiculopathy/article.htm#what_is_radiculopathy
John Hopkins Medicine, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/nervous_system_disorders/acute_radiculopathies_134,11
WebMD, https://answers.webmd.com/answers
Heathline, https://www.healthline.com/health/radiculopathy#causes
Columbia Spine, http://columbiaspine.org/condition/radiculopathy/
Medical News Today, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318465.php

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Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 6 – Degenerative Disc Disease

In this series, we have been examining spine-related musculoskeletal conditions.  In this post, we will be looking at degenerative disc disease.

Degenerative Disc Disease

Definition: Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is the breakdown in the size and cushioning of the intervertebral discs.

Overview: The name of the condition is actually somewhat of a misnomer – it is not actually a “disease”, but rather a condition that is characterized by the degeneration of the intervertebral discs over time.  Over time, the pressure and wear of repetitive use can cause discs to lose some of their water content and volume, reducing their ability to cushion and insulate the vertebrae from one another.

Symptoms: The symptoms most commonly associated with DDD are chronic pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling in the extremities, and reduced flexibility in the spine. Not all people with intervertebral disc degeneration, however, experience pain or other symptoms.  This is due to the fact that the degeneration of the discs, by itself, does not bring on the symptoms described above. However, as disc degeneration becomes more severe, it can lead to other conditions that bring on the symptoms people normally associate with DDD (e.g., pain, numbness and tingling, weakness, etc.).  Some of the conditions commonly associated with DDD are spinal osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and foraminal stenosis.

Causes: Reduction in the size and cushioning of your discs is part of the normal process of aging, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have shown that almost everyone over the age of 60 has degeneration of their intervertebral discs to some degree.[1]  Not all people with disc degeneration have back pain or other symptoms – in fact, individuals with relatively mild disc degeneration may experience no symptoms whatsoever.

However, age is not the only factor in DDD.  Deterioration of the intervertebral discs can be accelerated and exacerbated by other factors.  The culprit in many severe cases of DDD is stress-related damage in the form of repetitive use, trauma, injury, poor posture, poor movement, and obesity.  Among these, one of the most common factors is repetitive use.  For example, the repetitive, static posture of a dentist during clinical procedures creates (1) compressive forces on the cervical discs due to neck flexion, and (2) compressive forces on the lumbar discs due to axial loading.  When these compressive forces are applied year after year on a daily basis, the result can be an accelerated deterioration of the intervertebral discs.

Diagnosis: Diagnosis will generally begin with a physical exam in which the physician will perform a variety of tests to evaluate the patient’s strength and range of motion.  If the physical tests indicate DDD, an MRI is typically ordered to measure the disc space and check for cartilage erosion.

Treatment: Because DDD can cause such a broad range of symptoms and subsequent conditions, the treatment options vary widely.  Depending on the circumstances, treatment can range from conservative options such as physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications to surgical intervention in the form of a discectomy, laminectomy, laminoplasty, or spinal fusion.

Our next and final post in this series will discuss myelopathy.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

[1] Degenerative Disc Disease, Arthritis Foundation, http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/degenerative-disc-disease/

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

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Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 5 – Disc Bulge, Disc Herniation, and Disc Protrusion

Our posts in this series have been reviewing spine-related musculoskeletal conditions that are frequently seen in dentists and surgeons.  In this post, we will be looking at disc bulge, disc herniation, and disc protrusion.

Disc Bulge, Disc Herniation, and Disc Protrusion

Definitions:

  • Disc Bulge: Protrusion of a spinal disc outside the vertebral body that has not fully ruptured through the disc membrane, known as the annulus.
  • Disc Herniation: Protrusion of a spinal disc outside the vertebral body that has ruptured through the annulus, exposing a portion of the nucleus – the gel-like center of the disc.
  • Disc Protrusion: A general term to describe any type of disc bulge or herniation, in which a portion of the disc protrudes beyond the vertebral body.

Overview: A number of terms are used to describe spinal disc pathology and the associated symptoms.  To complicate matters further, there is not a clear consensus among medical professionals about the precise meaning of each term.

There are thirty-three vertebrae in the vertebral column of the human spine, twenty-four of which articulate and move.  Between each of the vertebrae in the three articulating sections of the spine – the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine – there is an intervertebral disc.  Each disc, composed of soft jelly-like center (nucleus) surrounded by a capsule of connective tissue (annulus), provides shock absorption and flexibility within the spine. When the protrusion puts pressure on the spinal cord or a nerve root, it can lead to a wide range of symptoms.

Symptoms: Symptoms will vary based on the location of the disc:

  • Lumbar: Pain radiating down the leg (sciatica) is the most common symptom associated with a lumbar disc herniation. Weakness in the foot and difficulty when raising the big toe (foot drop) and numbness/pain on the top of the foot are also prevalent.
  • Cervical: Pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling in the shoulder, arm, or hand depending on the location of the herniated disc.

Causes: Disc bulges are often the result of the normal process of aging, and by themselves may not cause any recognizable symptoms. Bad posture associated with frequent sitting or standing and occupational hazards such as repetitive bending or standing can accelerate the formation of disc bulges.

Disc herniation is often a progression in severity from a disc bulge.  As discs wear down over time, they may degenerate and lose some of their water content.  This condition, known as Degenerative Disc Disease, is discussed in greater detail below.  As discs degenerate and degrade, they become more flexible and the annulus may be more susceptible to tearing or rupturing.  Disc herniation can also be caused by traumatic, acute injuries such as a hard fall or blow to the back.

Diagnosis:  Diagnosis of a herniated or bulging disc typically begins with a physical exam that tests the patient’s reflexes, muscle strength, walking ability, and sensory perception (light touches, pin pricks, etc.).  If a protrusion is indicated by the physical test, imaging may be ordered in the form of X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and/or Myelograms.

Treatment:  Non-invasive treatment may include heat therapy, exercise, physical therapy, chiropractic treatment, therapeutic ultrasound, and medication.  Epidural steroid injections may be considered as an intermediate treatment.  For more severe cases, a microdiscectomy may be performed, typically in an outpatient setting.  In this procedure, a small portion of bone and/or disc material is removed to relieve pressure on the affected nerve root.

Our next post will discuss degenerative disc disease.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

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Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 4 – Spondylolisthesis

In this series of blog posts, we have been reviewing spine-related musculoskeletal conditions.  The next condition we will be looking at is spondylolisthesis.

Spondylolisthesis

Definition: Occurs when a vertebra (typically in the lumbar spine) slides forward over the vertebra beneath it.

Overview:  The vertebrae in the spinal column are linked together by small joints (facets) that permit the spine to bend forward (flexion) and backward (extension) while limiting rotational movement.  Spondylolisthesis occurs when a joint defect in the vertebrae (resulting from either a stress fracture or degeneration) permits one vertebra to slip forward on the one beneath it.

Spondylolisthesis is most common in the lower back, though in rare cases it can occur in the cervical spine.  It most frequently occurs at the L4-L5 and L3-L4 levels of the lumbar spine.

There are two types of spondylolisthesis: isthmic spondylolisthesis (IS) and degenerative spondylolisthesis (DS). IS occurs when a stress fracture of a small bone called the pars interarticularis permits a vertebra to slip forward over the vertebra below it.  IS is rare, and is most common in young children who participate in sports that put repeated stress on the lower back.

DS is far more common and most regularly occurs among people over the age of 50.  DS is a result of the gradual breakdown of the intervertebral discs and the facet joints in the spine.  As the discs lose volume, more stress and pressure is placed on the facet joints.  As the facet joints begin to degrade under the increased wear and pressure, they may allow too much flexion and cause a vertebra to slip forward over the vertebral body below it.

The slippage can place direct pressure on the spinal cord (spinal stenosis) and on the nerve roots exiting the spinal column (foraminal stenosis).

Symptoms: Lower back pain, leg pain (especially “running down” the leg), and sciatic pain are common.  Numbness or weakness often occurs in one or both legs.  Leg/back pain that is worse when bending over or twisting is common, as is pain that is worse standing than sitting.

Causes: Degenerative disc disease is a common cause of spondylolisthesis.  As we discussed above, when the intervertebral discs lose volume the spinal column becomes more compressed.  Without the shock absorption of the discs, more pressure is exerted on the facet joints.  This pressure and wear accelerates the degradation of the facets and allows for the increased flexion in the spine that can lead to vertebral slippage.  As clinical dentistry has moved from a standing profession to a seated one, dentists are at a higher risk for lower back conditions like spondylolisthesis.  Axial loading (the weight of the body compressing the spine vertically) on the lumbar spine is significantly higher in a seated position than it is standing.

Diagnosis: X-rays are used to determine whether or not a vertebra is out of place.  If the displaced vertebra is putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots, a CT scan may be ordered to identify the severity of the problem.

Treatment: As with many other conditions discussed in this series, conservative treatment may include some combination of physical therapy, exercise, strength training, manual manipulation, and medication.  Epidural steroid injections are sometimes prescribed for those in severe pain.  Spinal fusion surgery is sometimes used for severe pain that has not been successfully treated with less invasive treatment.  Typically, a posterior fusion with a pedicle screw implementation is used, but a surgeon may also recommend a spinal fusion done from the font of the spine simultaneously.

Our next post in the series will examine disc bulge, disc herniation, and disc protrusion.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

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Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 3 – Stenosis

In this series, we have been looking at spine-related musculoskeletal conditions that many dentists and surgeons suffer from.  In this post, we will be looking at spinal and foraminal stenosis.

Cervical Spinal Stenosis:

Definition: The narrowing of the spinal canal in the cervical vertebrae, often due to inflammation of the surrounding cartilage and tissue.

Overview: The spinal canal is formed by the hollow spaces in the middle of the vertebrae, which form a protective tunnel for the spinal cord to pass through the spinal column. Cervical spinal stenosis is a progressive and potentially dangerous condition that occurs when inflammation narrows the cervical spinal canal. The narrowing of this already tight space can result in direct pressure on the spinal cord, leading to a number of neurological complications.  Cervical spinal stenosis can be crippling if the spinal cord becomes damaged.

Symptoms: Symptoms usually develop gradually over time and can include numbness, weakness, tingling in neck, shoulders, arms, hands, or legs, as well as intermittent, sharp pain in the arms and legs, especially when bending forward.  Deterioration of fine motor skills and issues with gait and balance can also occur.  In more severe cases, bladder and bowel issues may develop.

Causes: Though in rare cases cervical spinal stenosis is a congenital condition, it often results from inflammation due to other spinal conditions, such as spinal osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, and disc bulging.

Diagnosis: A combination of X-ray, MRI, and computed tomography (CT) scans may be used to diagnose spinal stenosis.  Blood tests may be used to eliminate other diseases such as multiple sclerosis and vitamin B12 deficiency.

Treatment: Conservative, non-invasive treatments may include exercise, physical therapy, and activity modification.  Medications may include anti-inflammatory drugs, narcotic pain medication, muscle relaxers, and epidural steroid injections.  In more severe cases, several surgical options exist, dependent upon the particular characteristics of the patient’s condition:

Anterior cervical discectomy/corpectomy with fusion (ADCF): The spine is accessed through the front of the patient’s neck, the disc is removed from between the two vertebrae, and the vertebrae are then fused together to stabilize the spine.

Laminectomy: This is a “decompression” surgical procedure performed to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. In this surgery, the lamina (the rear portion of the vertebra covering the spinal canal) is removed from the affected vertebra to enlarge the spinal canal and decrease pressure on the spinal cord.

 Interspinous Process Spacers: In this procedure, small metal spacers are surgically placed between the vertebrae to restore the spacing typically created by a healthy disc. This procedure is typically reserved for individuals with foraminal stenosis, however, and has only had limited effectiveness with patients suffering from spinal stenosis.

Foraminal Stenosis

Definition: Compression of the nerve roots connected to the spinal cord, caused by the narrowing of the passageway through which the nerves exit the spinal column.

Overview: The nerve roots branching off the spinal cord to other parts of the body exit the spinal column through small openings on the sides of the vertebrae called a foramen. This space can become clogged or narrowed due to a number of spine-related conditions. The narrowing or partial obstruction of the foraminal canal caused by one of these conditions can put pressure on the nerve roots emerging from the spinal column, and may lead to an array of neurological symptoms that get progressively worse over time.

Symptoms: Tingling, numbness, or weakness in the feet or hands.  Local pain in the extremities.  “Pins and needles” or burning sensation. Intermittent neck or back pain.

Causes: Bulging or herniated discs may obstruct the foraminal canal, putting pressure on the nerve roots.  It can also be caused by spinal osteoarthritis, osteophytes, and spondylolisthesis.  Dentists are susceptible to foraminal stenosis, as they often hold their necks in extended positions.

Diagnosis: A CT scan and a Myelogram are used to diagnose foraminal stenosis. A Myelogram is an X-ray in which an opaque dye (which shows up on the X-ray) is injected into the sac around the nerve roots. The dye moves through the foramina, allowing the doctor to see the degree to which the foramen is narrowed or obstructed.

Treatments: Conservative treatments may include physical therapy, stretching and strength training, and oral pain-relieving medication. Corticosteroid injections are an option for more severe cases to reduce inflammation and pain.  In extreme cases, a surgical procedure known as a foraminotomy may be used to remove the bone spur or disc material that is putting pressure on the nerve root as it exits the spinal column through the foramen.

Our next post in this series will discuss spondylolisthesis.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

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Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 2 – Spinal Osteoarthritis

In the first part of this series, we discussed the fact that dentists and surgeons often suffer from musculoskeletal conditions.  In the remaining posts in this series, we will be looking at particular musculoskeletal conditions, starting with spinal osteoarthritis.

Spinal Osteoarthritis

Definition: Spinal osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease. It is a breakdown of the cartilage in the facet joints, which link together the spine’s vertebrae.

Overview: At the top and bottom of each vertebra is a small pair of joints called facets. Facets connect the vertebrae in order to restrict movement in certain directions and to allow the spine to move as one fluid unit.  The surfaces of the facets, like any other joint in the human body, are covered by a lubricating cartilage which allows them to operate smoothly and with little friction.

When the cartilage protecting the facets degrades or wears down, the bony surfaces of the facets rub against each other.  This can cause inflammation, severe pain, and the formation of osteophytes (bone spurs) on or around the joint surfaces.  It may also cause numbness and/or weakness in the legs and arms as a result of contact between the vertebrae and the nerves leaving the spinal cord.

Symptoms: Neck pain and stiffness. Severe pain may radiate down into shoulders and up the neck.  Weakness, numbness, or tingling in the fingers, hands, and/or arms are also often present.  Usually back discomfort is relieved when a person is lying down.  Studies have also linked anxiety and depression to osteoarthritis.[1]

Causes: Spinal osteoarthritis frequently occurs in conjunction with degenerative disc disease.  As the discs between the vertebrae in the spinal column degrade and decrease in volume, the increased pressure and contact between the facet joints can cause an accelerated degradation of the joint cartilage.

Repetitive strain or stress on the spine, often due to poor posture, to is a common cause of spinal osteoarthritis.  People with jobs requiring repetitive movements and strained positions are considered to be at greater risk for conditions like spinal osteoarthritis; however, injury or trauma to a joint or a genetic defect involving cartilage are also causes.  Dentists are at a higher risk than many other professions to develop this condition due to the awkward, static postures they must maintain.

Diagnosis: X-rays may be used to identify loss of cartilage, bone spurs, and bone damage. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used to analyze the intervertebral discs and the nerves exiting the spinal column.

Treatment: Conservative, non-invasive treatment plans may include some combination of heat/cold therapy, medication, physical therapy, strength training, and stretching. In more severe cases, a surgical treatment such as spinal fusion is utilized.

Our next post in this series will examine spinal stenosis, another common cause of neck and back pain.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

[1] Sharma, A., et. al, Anxiety and depression in patients with osteoarthritis: impact and management challenges, Open Access Rheumatology: Research and Reviews 2016:8 (2016).

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

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Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 1 – Spondylosis

Living with a spine-related condition can be scary and overwhelming. Unfortunately, the complex nature of the spine and the nervous system can often make the search for answers a frustrating and demoralizing endeavor.  In this series of posts we are going to talk about several spine-related musculoskeletal conditions, many of which are frequently diagnosed in dentists, surgeons, and other physicians.

If you are suffering from a spine-related condition, you have likely visited not only your primary care physician, but also a physical therapist, a chiropractor, a neurologist, an orthopedic surgeon, and/or a pain management doctor.  It’s common for those suffering from a musculoskeletal condition to hear several different terms to describe a set of symptoms, be given multiple explanations for what is causing their pain, and be given a variety of (often conflicting) treatment recommendations.

Dentists and physicians in certain surgical specialties are particularly susceptible to spine-related musculoskeletal conditions, which are among the top reasons insureds file disability claims.  The forward-flexed, static posture that dentists and surgeons must maintain to perform procedures can lead to the overuse and repetitive strain of the neck and back, and contribute to the development of a litany of musculoskeletal conditions.  One study showed that 62% of the general population present musculoskeletal work-related pain, and this increased to 93% when the sample population was made up entirely of dentists.[1]  Unfortunately, although one often thinks of spinal and back injuries occurring later in life after years of strain, chronic musculoskeletal pain is experienced by many dentists by their third year of dental school.[2]

We’ve created this series of blog posts as a resource to help clear up some of the confusion surrounding the common terms used to refer to spine-related musculoskeletal conditions.  For each term we’ll provide a definition, overview, list of common symptoms, causes, methods of diagnosis, and common treatments. In this post, we’re going to briefly look at spondylosis, and then in later posts we will take a more in depth look at some other spine-related conditions.

Spondylosis

Definition: This is an umbrella term used to broadly describe degeneration in the spine.  Some doctors may use it interchangeably with spinal osteoarthritis.  Spondylosis is a descriptive term rather than a clinical diagnosis – it is used to describe anyone suffering from both pain and spinal degeneration.  If your doctor uses this term to describe your condition, you may want to your physician for a more specific diagnosis.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

[1] Dias, Ana Giselle Aguiar, et. al, Prevalence of repetitive strain injuries/work related musculoskeletal disorders in different specialties of dentists, RGO, Rev. Gauch. Odontol. Vol. 62 no. 2, Campinas Apr./June 2014,  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/1981-8637201400020000042714  (citing Regis Filho GI, Michels G, Sell I. Lesões por esforços repetitivos/distúrbios osteomusculares relacionados ao trabalho em cirurgiões-dentistas. Rev Bras Epidemiol. 2006;9(3):346-59, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1415-790X2006000300009&lng=en).

[2] Kristina Lynch, My back is hurting my practice, Part I, AGD Impact, Feb. 2006.

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/

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Chronic Pain and Anxiety Disorders

Chronic pain by itself is often debilitating, and the struggle to obtain a correct diagnosis, effective pain management, and ongoing treatment can be stressful and overwhelming.  As we discussed in a previous post, depression often co-occurs with chronic pain, and can further complicate treatment.  The same is true of anxiety disorders.

Chronic Pain Disorders Associated with the Co-Occurrence of Anxiety

Like depression, anxiety is more likely to co-occur with certain conditions, such as:

It is no secret that physicians and dentists have stressful and demanding careers.  One Cardiff University study showed that of 2,000 British doctors, at various stages of their careers, 60% had experienced mental illness.[1]  Often practitioners ignore or fight through both chronic pain and anxiety and show up to work, to the point of endangering themselves or others before acknowledging their disability or seeking adequate treatment.

While anxiety alone can result in an inability to practice, either indefinitely or in the short-term, it is also quite common in those suffering from chronic pain to experience an anxiety disorder.  Anxiety disorders are also the most common type of psychiatric disorders in the United States, with 19 million adults affected.[2]

Chronic Pain and Anxiety—Worse Together

Facing a long-term or permanent disability can be anxiety provoking for a physician or dentist, who must (1) face giving up a career he or she invested so much time and financial resources to establish; (2) seek a correct diagnosis, course of treatment, and adequate pain management; and (3) often struggle with adapting to the loss of a previously enjoyed quality of life.  Conversely, chronic pain is also common in people with anxiety disorders,[3]  with up to 70% of people with certain medical conditions (including hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis) had an anxiety disorder first.[4]

Regardless of whether anxiety or chronic pain came first, individuals suffering from anxiety can experience pain that is particularly intense and hard to treat.[5]  In a 2013 study, 45% of 250 patients who had moderate to severe chronic joint or back pain screened positive for at least one of the common anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD).  Further, those that had an anxiety disorder reported significantly worse pain and health-related quality of life than their counterparts without anxiety.[6]

Symptoms of Anxiety[7]

There are several anxiety disorders and, while the below list is by no means exhaustive, sufferers of anxiety often exhibit the following symptoms:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Difficulty controlling worry
  • Restlessness, feeling wound-up or on edge, irritability, muscle tension
  • Being easily fatigued and problems with sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating or having their minds go blank

Panic Disorder

  • Sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear
  • Feelings of being out of control during a panic attack
  • Intense worries about when the next attack will happen
  • Avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past

Social Anxiety Disorder

  • Feeling highly anxious about being around other people (including having a hard time talking to them, blushing, sweating, trembling, or feeling sick to your stomach)
  • Feeling self-conscious in front of others and worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed or rejected, or fearful of offending others
  • Worrying before an event and/or avoiding places where there are other people
  • Having a hard time making and keeping friends

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Flashbacks, bad dreams, difficulty sleeping, frightening thoughts, angry outbursts
  • Avoiding places, events, objects, thoughts, or feelings that are reminders of the traumatic experience and trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Being easily startled and feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Negative feelings about oneself or the world, and distorted feelings like guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • Unwanted or forbidden thoughts, including aggressive thoughts towards others or self
  • Having things symmetrical or in perfect order; excessive clearing and/or hand washing; ordering and arranging things in a precise way; repeatedly checking on things; compulsive counting

Treatments for Anxiety

Some of the treatments that have been successful in addressing anxiety in those with chronic pain include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Psychodynamic therapy (talk therapy)
  • Support groups
  • Relaxation or meditation training
  • Alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Medication

Chronic pain sufferers who recognize any of the above-referenced symptoms in themselves should talk to their doctor to address these serious issues.

[1] Michael Brooks, Why doctors’ mental health should be a concern for us all, NewStatesmen, April 11, 2016, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2016/04/why-doctors-mental-health-should-be-concern-us-all

[2] What are Anxiety Disorders?, Global Medical Education, https://www.gmeded.com/gme-info-graphics/what-are-anxiety-disorders

[3] Chronic Pain, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, April, 2016, https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/chronic-pain

[4] Global Medical Education, Supra.

[5] Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., The pain-anxiety-depression connection, Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-pain-anxiety-depression-connection

[6] Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, Chronic pain sufferers likely to have anxiety, ScienceDaily, May 8, 2013, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130508213112.htm

[7] Definitions according to National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

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Chronic Pain and Depression

Chronic pain is often difficult to diagnose and treat.  Consequently, those who suffer from chronic pain typically must also deal with a significant amount of stress, due to repeated failed treatments, numerous medical appointments, interruption of work and enjoyable activities, and the inability of their friends or family to understand their physical limitations.  This can, in turn, cause or worsen depression.  When depression occurs alongside chronic pain, it can make dealing with and treating the pain even harder.

Chronic Pain Disorders Associated with the Co-Occurrence of Depression

While mental health conditions, including depression, can often be disabling in and of themselves, they are unfortunately also quite common in those suffering from chronic pain.  Depression is more likely to co-occur with certain conditions, such as:

  • Back Pain
  • Neck Pain
  • Joint Pain
  • Arthritis
  • Migraines
  • Fibromyalgia

Studies show that rates of depression are high in residents and medical students (15%-30%) than rates in the general population, and the risk of depression continues throughout a physician’s career.[1]  According to a British study, 60% of dentists reported being anxious, tense, or depressed.

Dentists, doctors, and other medical professionals place extreme amounts of pressure on themselves because the stakes of their professions are so high.  In addition to perfectionism and self-criticism, other predictors of depression in doctors include:  lack of sleep, stressful interactions with patients and staff, dealing with death, constant responsibility, loneliness, and making mistakes.[2]

Often practitioners work through both chronic pain and psychiatric disorders for some time before acknowledging their disability or seeking adequate treatment.  In the case of depression, this can be due in part to the social stigma that surrounds it.  For all of these reasons, depression may go undiagnosed or seem less of an immediate concern to those suffering from chronic pain.  However, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression and chronic pain, studies show that it is important to treat both, because chronic pain can become much more difficulty to treat if the depression is allowed to progress unchecked.

Chronic Pain and Depression—Worse Together

Facing a long-term or permanent disability can trigger depression—this is especially understandable for doctors or dentists who have put years into medical school and establishing their careers, only to become disabled and have to step away from a profession that has become a significant part of their identity. Depression can also precede chronic pain.  For example, several studies have examined the link between depression before the onset of back-pain.[3]

Regardless of which came first, together they are formidable to treat.  Major depression is thought to be four times greater in people with chronic back pain than those in the general population, and studies show that individuals suffering from both chronic back pain and depression experienced a greater degree of impairment than those with either depression or back pain alone.[4]

Treatments for Depression

Focusing solely on pain management can prevent both the patient’s and treating physician’s ability to recognize that a psychiatric disorder is also present.  Yet, even with correct diagnoses, both issues can be difficult to treat together.[5]  For instance, those who suffer from both chronic pain and mental illnesses can have a lower pain threshold as well as increased sensitivity to medication side-effects.[6]  Some treatments that have proved successful in addressing depression in those with chronic pain include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Psychodynamic therapy (talk therapy)
  • Relaxation or meditation training
  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Medication

Symptoms of Depression

  • Little interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
  • Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or having little energy
  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling bad about yourself, or that you are a failure or have let yourself or others down
  • Thoughts that you would be better off dead, or hurting yourself in some way

Chronic pain sufferers who recognize any of the above-referenced symptoms in themselves should talk to their doctor to address these serious issues.

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] Robert P. Bright, MD, Depression and suicide among physicians, Current Psychiatry, April 10, 2011.

[2] Id.

[3] William W. Deardorff, PHD, ABPP, Depression Can Lead to Chronic Back Pain, Spine-health.com, Oct. 15, 2004, http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/depression/depression-can-lead-chronic-back-pain.

[4] William W. Deardorff, PhD, ABPP, Depression and Chronic Back Pain, Spine-health.com, Oct. 15, 2004, http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/depression/depression-and-chronic-back-pain.

[5] Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., The pain-anxiety-depression connection, Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-pain-anxiety-depression-connection.

[6] Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Chronic Pain,  https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/chronic-pain.

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fMRI Brain Scanning: The Future of Proving Pain?

Many disability claimants suffering from chronic, intense pain are surprised and disheartened when their reported pain levels are received with skepticism by their insurance company.  Since pain is a subjective feeling, treating doctors typically ask patients to self-report their pain on a scale of 0-10, so that they can diagnose and treat the pain.  Unfortunately, most insurance companies are unwilling to accept self-reported pain levels and will often try to downplay the severity of the claimant’s pain, citing a lack of objective evidence.

Recently, researchers have developed a technology called functional MRI scans, or fMRIs, for short, which may provide a new way to objectively verify the existence of pain.  In this post, we will examine this technology and discuss how it might be used in the context of disability claims.

What is an fMRI?

fMRI scanning is a noninvasive technique used by doctors to map and measure brain activity.  More specifically, fMRIs are used to measure and observe increases in MR signal caused by neural activity in the brain.  The fMRI data is then analyzed to determine which parts of the brain were active during the scan.  The data is then compared to known neurological signatures, or “biomarkers,” to determine if there are any correlations between the neural activity in the brain and the symptoms reported by the patient (such as chronic pain).

The Use of fMRI Scans to Prove Pain

Recently, a number of companies and researchers are focusing on using fMRI scans to produce objective evidence of pain.  For instance, Dr. Joy Hirsch, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, claims to have developed a test that is capable of distinguishing real, chronic pain from imagined pain.

fMRI scans are also now being used to support the cases of claimants in disability cases. For example, a woman in New York recently used an fMRI scan to convince her insurer, after two years of litigation, that her disability claim never should have been denied.  An fMRI scan was also recently used in the case of Carl Koch, a truck driver from Arizona who suffered severe burns when the hose of his tanker broke loose and sprayed him with molten tar.  Mr. Koch visited Dr. Hirsch, who used functional brain mapping to conclude that Mr. Koch’s pain was real.  When the judge ruled that Dr. Hirsch’s testimony would be admissible at trial, the case settled for $800,000 – an amount ten times higher than the company’s original offer.

What the Skeptics Say

The use of fMRI scans to prove pain remains controversial. Some critics argue that the techniques being used in litigation have little support in existing publications.  Others, such as Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Boulder, contend that the sample size in available studies is too small.  Proponents of fMRI refute both of these claims, arguing that a number of credible studies support the validity of their methods.

 The Future of fMRI Scans in Disability Cases

It’s easy to see how fMRI scans could prove useful in a disability claim.  For example, many dentists suffer from musculoskeletal disorders, particularly in their spines, that cause chronic, debilitating pain.  However, as noted above, these types of claims can be particularly difficult, because many insurance companies refuse to accept a claimant’s self-reported pain levels and limitations.  Co-workers, family, and friends can provide statements describing how the dentist’s pain is affecting his performance at work and his quality of life, but once again, insurance companies will typically similarly claim that such statements are “objectively verifiable” evidence of the pain.  Sometimes a cervical or lumbar MRI can identify potential causes for the pain, and/or a functional capacity exam (FCE) can help document the limitations the pain is causing—but these types of reports are also commonly challenged by insurance companies intent on denying benefits.

In such a case, an fMRI scan illustrating the doctor’s pain might serve as an additional, objectively verifiable method of establishing the existence of chronic pain.  Whether or not insurance companies are willing to accept fMRIs as reliable evidence of pain remains to be seen, and will likely depend, in large part, on how willing courts are to accept fMRIs as admissible evidence of pain.  If, in the future, this technology continues to develop and become more precise, and courts and juries demonstrate a willingness to accept fMRIs as proof of pain, fMRIs may eventually be enough to convince insurance companies to accept legitimate disability claims without ever setting foot in a courtroom.

REFERENCES:

  1. UC San Diego Sch. of Med., What is fMRI?, available at http://fmri.ucsd.edu/Research/whatisfmri.html.
  1. Sushrut Jangi, Measuring Pain Using Functional MRI, The New England Journal of Medicine, available at http://blogs.nejm.org/now/index.php/9863/2013/04/10/.
  1. Steven Levy, Brain Imaging of Pain Brings Success to Disability Claim, EIN Presswire (June 29, 2016), available at http://www.einpresswire.com/article/333249721/brain-imaging-of-pain-brings-success-to-disability-claim.
  1. Kevin Davis, Personal Injury Lawyers Turn to Neuroscience to Back Claims of Chronic Pain, ABA Journal (Mar. 1, 2016), available at http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/personal_injury_lawyers_turn_to_neuroscience_to_back_claims_of_chronic_pain.

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Long Term Disability by Diagnosis

In previous posts, we have been looking at the findings from the most recent study on long term disability claims conducted by the Council for Disability Awareness.  In this post we will be looking at the types of diagnoses associated with long term disability claims, and which types of claims are most common.

As you can see from the chart above, the most common type of both new and existing long term disability is musculoskeletal disorders—a category which includes neck and back pain caused by degenerative disc disease and similar spine and joint disorders.

This is particularly noteworthy because physicians and dentists, who often have to maintain uncomfortable static postures for several hours each day, are very susceptible to musculoskeletal disorders.  In addition, claims involving musculoskeletal disorders can be challenging, because oftentimes there is little objective evidence to verify the pain.  If you suffer from degenerative disc disease or a similar disorder, an experienced disability insurance attorney can explain how to properly document your disability claim to the insurance company.

References:

http://www.disabilitycanhappen.org/research/CDA_LTD_Claims_Survey_2014.asp

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Myelopathy: Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, we listed some of the symptoms and potential causes of myelopathy.  In Part 2, we will discuss some of the methods used to treat myelopathy.

Methods of Treating Myelopathy

  • Avoidance of activities that cause pain;
  • Acupuncture;
  • Using a brace to immobilize the neck;
  • Physical therapy (primarily exercises to improve neck strength and flexibility);
  • Various medication (including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), oral corticosteroids, muscle relaxants, anti-seizure medications, antidepressants, and prescription pain relievers);
  • Epidural steroid injections (ESI);
  • Narcotics, if pain is very severe;
  • Surgical removal of bone spurs/herniated discs putting pressure on spinal cord;
  • Surgical removal of portions of vertebrae in spine (to give the spinal cord more room); and
  • Spinal fusion surgery.

Conclusion

Myelopathy can be severely debilitating, particularly for doctors and dentists. Obviously, any physician or dentist who is experiencing a loss of motor skills, numbness in hands and arms and/or high levels of chronic pain will not be able to effectively treat patients.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to ask your doctor to conduct tests to see if your spinal cord is being compressed. If you have myelopathy and the pain and numbness has progressed to the point where you can no longer treat patients effectively or safely, you should stop treating patients and consider filing a disability claim.

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Myelopathy: Part 1

In previous posts, we have discussed a number of disabling conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremors, carpal tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. In this post, we are going to talk about another serious condition that can severely limit a physician or dentist’s ability to practice—myelopathy. In Part 1, we will discuss some of the causes and symptoms of myelopathy. In Part 2, we will discuss some of the methods used to treat myelopathy.

What is Myelopathy?

Myelopathy is an overarching term used to describe any neurologic deficit caused by compression of the spinal cord.

The onset of myelopathy can be rapid or it can develop slowly over a period of months. In most cases, myelopathy is progressive; however, the timing and progression of symptoms varies significantly from person to person.

What Causes Myelopathy?

There are several potential causes of myelopathy, including:

  • Bone fractures or dislocations due to trauma/injury;
  • Inflammatory diseases/autoimmune disorders (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis);
  • Structural abnormalities (e.g. bone spurs, disc bulges, herniated discs, thickened ligaments);
  • Vascular problems;
  • Tumors;
  • Infections; and
  • Degenerative changes due to aging.

Symptoms of Myelopathy

The symptoms of myelopathy will vary from case to case, because the nature and severity of the symptoms will depend on which level of the spine is being compressed—i.e. cervical (neck), thoracic (middle), or lumbar (lower)—and the extent of the compression.

Some of the symptoms of myelopathy include:

  • Neck stiffness;
  • Deep aching pain in one or both sides of neck, and possibly arms and shoulders;
  • Grating or crackling sensation when moving neck;
  • Stabbing pain in arm, elbow, wrist or arms;
  • Dull ache/tingling/numbness/weakness in arms, hands, legs or feet;
  • Position sense loss (i.e. the inability to know where your arms are without looking at them);
  • Deterioration of fine motor skills (such as handwriting and the ability to button shirts);
  • Lack of coordination, imbalance, heavy feeling in the legs, and difficulty walking;
  • Clumsiness of hands and trouble grasping;
  • Intermittent shooting pains in arms and legs (especially when bending head forward);
  • Incontinence; and
  • Paralysis (in extreme cases).

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Will Physical Therapy Help Your Back Pain?

In previous posts, we have discussed some of the methods used to treat back pain. One common method of treatment is physical therapy. However, according to a recent study published in JAMA, physical therapy may not provide significant benefits for patients suffering from lower back pain.

The JAMA study divided patients with back pain into two groups. The first group participated in sessions with a physical therapist. The second group was simply told that the pain would get better if they maintained an active lifestyle.

Although the physical therapy group demonstrated more improvement over the first 3 months (based on a scale that measures disability from lower back pain), after 1 year both groups’ results were substantially the same.

Additionally, the study did not find any meaningful differences in the groups’ pain intensity, quality of life, or number of visits to health care providers.

Thus, the study would seem to suggest that while physical therapy may help for a limited amount of time, in the long run it may not necessarily be an effective treatment method for back pain.

Notably, the sample size for the study was small (207 people), so further research may be necessary to more precisely determine the extent of the benefits provided by physical therapy.

See also http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/14/physical-therapy-may-not-benefit-back-pain/?smid=tw-nytimeswell&smtyp=cur&_r=0.

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Posture and Your Practice

Good posture is important for everyone, but especially for dentists, who spend a fair amount of time in static positions, making repetitive movements, or bending or twisting in ways that aren’t necessarily natural for human bodies. Today, we’re going to give you some tips on how to improve your posture and positioning in your everyday life as well as your practice, so that you may potentially avoid or delay future disabling pain.

General Posture

  • Keep your body in alignment.
    • While standing, this means distributing your weight evenly on both feet, and making sure that you keep your weight from shifting either forward on the balls of your feet or backward on your heels.
    • When seated, sit up straight and keep your ears, shoulders, and hips in a straight line. A good trick is to picture a balloon attached to the top of your head, pulling you upward.
  • Move around a bit.
    • When your muscles get tired, it’s much easier to slouch or fall into a position that might be comfortable now, but could strain parts of your body you don’t want strained. It’s important to walk around after every half-hour or so of sitting to stretch and refresh your body.
    • Also, moving around slightly while seated is a good way to refresh your muscles. Instead of making your back tight by forcing a constantly straight position, bend a little bit every now and then to reset your posture, and give yourself a break.
  • When working at a desk, use a chair that has good lumbar support or use a small pillow placed between your back and the chair.
    • The spine naturally curves in an “S” shape, so it is important to support your lower back. Ergonomically designed chairs can do this. Using a small pillow for your lower back can also help support your spine.
    • It is also important to sit back in your chair and not on the edge of the seat. A chair is able to provide a solid foundation for your seat only if you use all of the area.
  • Make sure your desk chair is properly aligned to your workspace.
    • Keep your feet flat on the floor and have your hips slightly higher than your knees when sitting at a desk. This will keep you from adding strain to your hip flexor muscles, which play a role in lower back stability.

In the Dental Chair

  • Keep your patient at waist level.
    • This enables you to maintain your proper posture and work safely within your patient’s mouth. It also helps keep your wrists straight, and elbows at 90 degrees, which puts less strain on your arms, shoulders and back.
    • To test it out, hold a 5–pound weight away from your body at waist–height and slowly move it in until your elbows are at 90 degrees. Notice how the weight is much more comfortable to hold when it is closer to your body.
  • Have your tools easily available.
    • Keep everything you may need within a short reach and in front of you so you don’t do any unnecessary twisting, bending or turning.
  • Have better designed tools.
    • You can get lighter tools and angled hand-pieces that allow you to better reach difficult places in your patient’s mouth. It would also be helpful to replace old hoses with ones that are designed to be lighter and straight, so you don’t have to fight the tension of a coil.
    • Gloves are also important: using ambidextrous gloves forces your thumb into an unnatural position and constrains your fingers into one plane, which isn’t anatomically correct. Look into purchasing gloves specifically for your left and right hands to avoid this strain.

While all of these tips can be helpful in preventing future pain, none of them are a cure-all for potential disabilities, and they may not “fix” pain that has already begun. It is essential to have a dialogue with your doctor about any issues that you may be having. It may also be useful to talk to a disability insurance lawyer if you think that your current or future pain may not allow you to continue practicing. We hope that these tips were helpful; let us know in the comments what worked for you!

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