Breath has more impact on stress and life than we realize, and sometimes the key to de-stressing can be simply changing the way we breathe.
As dental hygienists, we often find ourselves immersed in a demanding and fast-paced environment, attending to the oral health needs of our patients. While our profession is extremely rewarding, it can also take a toll on our physical and mental well-being. Studies show that up to 97% of dental professionals experience musculoskeletal disorders and pain.1
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are common among dental hygienists specifically because of the high-risk factors of our profession. In fact, 1 report shows that 91% of dental hygienists are suffering, or have suffered, from MSDs, and that the most common areas for pain and injury among dental hygienists are the neck, shoulders, and low back.2 In addition to increased risk of pain, reports show higher levels of stress in dental hygienists.3
The prevalence of pain, injuries, and stress among dental hygienists highlights the importance of finding ways to take care of ourselves as dental practitioners. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the risk factors that lead to injury include contact stress, grasp/grip, repetitive movements, vibrations, and awkward posture. The goal of ergonomics is to reduce injury and pain by minimizing these risk factors.4 In this article, we will explore the profound connection between our breath, posture, and stress levels. Understanding this link can empower dental hygienists to adopt healthier breathing patterns and improve our posture and, as a result, enhance proper ergonomics, reduce the risk of injury, and manage stress more effectively.
The Connection Between Breath and Posture
Posture plays a vital role in the daily routines of dental hygienists. Since we spend significant hours seated and leaning forward to perform intricate tasks with focused attention, it’s pivotal for hygienists to adopt a healthy posture while working. While it may not be possible to have perfect posture throughout the day because of inevitably challenging patients and cases, focusing on maintaining proper alignment while we work can minimize our risk of injury dramatically.
Over time, awkward positioning and improper posture can lead to musculoskeletal imbalances and chronic pain. Awkward positioning is one of the risk factors that leads to MSDs, so when hygienists focus on neutral posture and body positioning at work, they reduce strain on the neck, shoulders, and back. Studies show a clear link between good posture and pain reduction.5 Practicing with proper posture allows the body to work smarter, not harder, which not only reduces the risk of injury and pain but also minimizes the recovery time.
The way we breathe affects our posture and vice versa. Shallow, chest-based breathing restricts full-range movement of the diaphragm, a key muscle responsible for breathing. This restricted breathing pattern contributes to rounded shoulders, forward head posture, and a hunched back. Hygienists should practice diaphragmatic breathing, which is breathing deeply to engage the diaphragm. This can improve our posture by promoting proper spinal alignment, engaging core muscles, and encouraging a more upright and balanced position.
Poor posture can reduce our capacity to take deep breaths. Effective breathing patterns encourage full oxygen exchange in the body, which is crucial to maintain basic bodily functions and health. When clinicians practice in a rounded posture, the body is unable to receive the necessary benefits of taking a full breath, which can lead to other health issues.
Hygienists work in fast-paced, frequently stressful environments. Because of this combination and the nature of the work, it’s critical that hygienists focus on maintaining proper posture and good breathing patterns. By consciously incorporating diaphragmatic breathing into our daily routine, we activate the core muscles, and reduce the strain on our neck, back, and shoulders, mitigating the risk of postural imbalances and chronic pain. An improved posture not only benefits our physical health but also enhances our mental and emotional well-being.
The Link Between Breath and Stress
Stress is an inevitable part of our lives, particularly in the demanding field of dental hygiene. Long hours, repetitive motions, and the responsibility of patient care can generate significant stress levels. However, the way we breathe has a profound impact on our stress response. When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system activates, leading to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. Shallow, rapid breathing often accompanies this stress response, further exacerbating the physical and mental symptoms of stress.
Conversely, conscious, deep breathing triggers the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the body’s relaxation response. By taking slow, deep breaths, we signal our body to calm down, reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and the production of stress hormones. This simple yet powerful tool can help clinicians manage stress effectively, enhancing our overall well-being and resilience in the face of challenging patients and situations.
Incorporating Better Breathing Patterns for Happy, Healthy Hygienists
Now that we understand the significance of proper breathing for our posture and stress management, let’s explore practical ways to incorporate better breathing patterns into our daily lives as dental hygienists.
Mindful breathing: Practicing mindful breathing is an easy and simple way hygienists can improve their overall health. To practice, sit or stand comfortably and focus on your breath. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, allowing your belly and chest to expand. Exhale slowly and fully through your nose. Pay attention to the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body and the breath slowing down. Hygienists can incorporate this practice first thing in the morning, on break, or while seeing a patient.
Diaphragmatic breathing: Practice diaphragmatic breathing during breaks or whenever you feel stressed. Place 1 hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, feeling your belly rise as you fill your lungs with air. Exhale slowly through your nose, allowing your belly to soften and release. Repeat this pattern several times, noticing the belly rising and falling with each breath.
Posture awareness: Be mindful of your posture throughout the day. Sit upright, aligning your ears, shoulders, and hips in a straight line. Avoid slouching, leaning, or hunching forward. Combine good posture with diaphragmatic breathing to reinforce a healthy alignment.
Stretching and movement: Incorporate regular stretching and movement breaks into your work routine. Gentle neck, shoulder, and back stretches can alleviate muscle tension and promote better posture while improving breathing patterns. Incorporating yoga into your routine can help improve posture, tight muscles, and breathing patterns.
In a profession that demands so much from us, it is crucial to prioritize our own well-being as dental hygienists. By recognizing the profound connection between our breath, posture, and stress levels, we can empower ourselves to adopt healthier breathing patterns. Incorporating diaphragmatic breathing and practicing mindful awareness can enhance our posture, reduce the risk of pain and injury, and facilitate effective stress management. Let us strive to prioritize self-care, embracing the power of breath to promote our physical and mental well-being while continuing to offer the highest-quality care for our patients and community.