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6 Tips to Injury-Proof Your Hygiene Hands


Hygienists are at a heightened risk for musculoskeletal disorders due to the nature of the profession, but there are ways to prevent or decrease the risk of suffering later. Here are 6 tips on how.

6 Tips to Injury-Proof Your Hygiene Hands. Image: © tong2530 - stock.adobe.com

6 Tips to Injury-Proof Your Hygiene Hands. Image: © tong2530 - stock.adobe.com

Dental hygienists play a pivotal role in maintaining the health of their patients and the health of the whole dental practice. Unfortunately, this vital work can come at a cost. Reports show that up to 91% of dental hygienists have suffered or are suffering from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).1 MSDs are extremely common among dental hygienists due to the nature of their work. Repetitive tasks, sitting for long periods of time, awkward posture and positioning, excessive grip/force, localized pressure, and vibration all contribute to an increased risk of injury for hygienists.2

Hand and wrist pain is a particularly important issue among dental hygienists. It’s no surprise as hygienists use their hands for most of the day. According to a study, 75% of dental hygienists reported having hand problems, with 56% showing signs and symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.3 Excessively gripping instruments, using dull instruments, trekking heavy cords around the operatory, and awkward hand and wrist positioning all contribute to an increased risk of hand/wrist injuries for dental hygienists.

Pain isn’t the only indicator that something is wrong. Typically, our bodies send signals in other forms before we experience pain. Numbness, tingling, achiness, and weakness are all classic symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Oftentimes, these symptoms arise because of compression and/or inflammation around the median nerve. The median nerve originates from the brachial plexus, a bundle of nerves by the neck, and runs down the arm and forearm to the wrist. The median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel at the wrist to the thumb, index, middle, and half of the ring finger. Because this nerve controls both movement and sensation in the hand, when it’s compressed or inflamed, these symptoms often appear.

It’s crucial for all hygienists to understand their bodies, how hygiene can affect them physically, and the changes they can make to reduce their risk of a hand injury – both in and out of the operatory. Aside from providing the highest quality care to their patients and communities, the underlying goal of dental hygienists should be prioritizing their physical and mental well-being. One way to stay healthy in hygiene is by protecting the most valuable instrument in their body––their hands. The goal of this article is to share different tools, practices, and ideas to help reduce the risk of hand injury and, in turn, enjoy a long-lasting, healthy career in dentistry.

How Did We Get Here?

Dental hygienists experiencing hand pain is not new, but we’re learning more about it. Several factors contribute to hand and wrist pain in dental hygienists, and often, it’s more than 1 risk factor combined.

Improper positioning of the patient and the dental hygienist during procedures can lead to excessive stress on the hands and wrists. Prolonged periods of leaning, reaching, twisting, or bending can strain the muscles and tendons, leading to discomfort and pain. Hygienists should focus on mastering their posture and ergonomics throughout different procedures, and as much as possible, make sure their patients are in optimal positioning, so the practitioner doesn’t compromise their posture.

The instruments we use matter. Working with dull dental instruments requires extra force and pressure, increasing the strain on the hands and wrists. Hygienists should prioritize using sharp instruments and, if needed, ensuring the office has a sharpening protocol. Both practices are essential for reducing the effort needed during dental hygiene procedures.

Incorrect use of dental instruments can exacerbate hand pain. Proper training and technique are crucial to ensure efficient and ergonomic instrument use. Depending on where and when you went to hygiene school, instrumentation techniques may have evolved. In addition, certain instruments, like the American Eagle XP® Sharpen-Free Instruments for example, may require a different instrumentation technique.

When looking to prevent or overcome hand pain, we must look at all the pieces that make up the puzzle. While there are general ergonomic guidelines to follow, each hygienist is different. We have different bodies, past experiences, habits, and routines. We have different experiences, education, and training, and we work in different offices with varying levels of structure and stress. All of these things play a part, but at the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to understand, protect, and take care of our health.

What Can We Do Now?

Now that we have identified the common causes of hand and wrist pain, let's explore essential tools and tips to injury-proof your hands as a dental hygienist.

  • Ensure Proper Positioning: Proper practitioner positioning is fundamental to reducing strain and preventing injuries. Dental hygienists should maintain a neutral wrist position and use adjustable equipment to align the patient and the dental instruments optimally. Frequent breaks should also be taken to avoid prolonged periods of static posture.
  • Opt for Sharp Instruments: Using sharp instruments reduces the force required during procedures, minimizing strain on the hands and wrists. Regularly sharpen and maintain instruments to ensure peak performance and reduced strain on the body. Each hygienist, or office, should incorporate a sharpening protocol to protect the instrument, patients, and their health.
  • Incorporate Power Instruments: Power-driven instruments can significantly reduce repetitive motions, lowering the risk of overuse injuries. Consider incorporating power scaling tools into your practice to distribute the workload more evenly. Just as we want to ensure our instruments are fully sharpened, hygienists should routinely ensure their instrument tips are in good condition.
  • Master Proper Instrumentation Techniques: It’s imperative that hygienists know and understand proper instrumentation – for our patients and ourselves. Instrumentation isn’t always taught the same way. Attend training sessions or workshops to perfect your instrumentation techniques. Using the correct technique maximizes efficiency and minimizes strain.
  • Practice Regular Stretching: Implement stretching exercises into your daily routine to improve circulation, relieve tension in tight muscles, and promote better posture. To optimize the health of your hand and wrist, focus on stretches and strengthening practices that target the hands, fingers, arms, shoulders, and neck. Hygienists can implement these practices throughout their workday, in the comfort of their homes, or at a yoga studio.
  • Embrace Different Wellness Tools: A holistic hand-health approach includes overall wellness. Stay hydrated to keep joints and soft tissue lubricated, maintain an active lifestyle to strengthen muscles and support better posture, consume nutritious food to promote overall health, and find ways to reduce stress––in and out of work.

Hand and wrist pain is a common challenge faced by dental hygienists due to the nature of their work. However, armed with knowledge and proactive strategies and tools, dental hygienists can reduce the risk of injuries and maintain their wellbeing while providing exceptional patient care. By ensuring proper positioning, using sharp instruments, incorporating power instruments, mastering proper techniques, and embracing a wellness-focused lifestyle, dental hygienists can injury-proof their hands and continue to thrive in their profession. Remember that taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of your patients, and by prioritizing health, you can enjoy a long and fulfilling career, free from unnecessary pain and discomfort.

  1. Saccucci M, Zumbo G, Mercuri P, et al. Musculoskeletal disorders related to dental hygienist profession. Int J Dent Hyg. 2022;20(3):571-579. doi:10.1111/idh.12596
  2. Ergonomics. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Accessed January 10, 2023. https://www.osha.gov/ergonomics/identify-problems
  3. Lalumandier JA, McPhee SD. Prevalence and risk factors of hand problems and carpal tunnel syndrome among dental hygienists. J Dent Hyg. 2001;75(2):130-134

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