October is National Dental Hygiene Month, and it’s more than appropriate to spend a month dedicated to these professionals. Dental hygienists are masters of disease prevention, and it’s important to not only learn about the work they do, but also thank and celebrate them for all the ways they contribute to preventative dentistry.
A dental hygienist is a dental professional that cleans your teeth, but they do much more than that as well. Dental assistants, though just as important in helping to provide dental care, play a different role in a dental office working primarily next to the dentist in restoration work, such as fillings or extractions.
What does a dental hygienist do?
A dental hygienist is typically the one that leads you to the dental chair in a dental office for your regular “checkup”. Many times referred to as a “dental checkup” or “dental cleaning,” a regular preventative dental recare visit consists of updating radiographs (x-rays), a prophylaxis (professional cleaning) and a dentist exam.
Some people may remember the days when a dentist performed dental cleanings, but through the years, dentists have come to rely on dental hygienists, freeing up their time to work on restorations and other work that can only be performed by dentists.
At your preventative recare visits, dental hygienists start by reviewing any changes in your medical history as changes in your medical health have impacts on your dental health. Medications can also impact your oral health, so those are noted.
Next, they update any radiographs (x-rays) as determined by the treating dentist. Hygienists follow strict standards in their profession. In the state of Iowa, hygienists do not have the authority to diagnose decay. Sometimes I overhear patients asking their hygienist if they see any cavities on their x-rays. The hygienist then explains that the dentist identifies decay and diagnoses that type of disease. (I know dental visits can be suspenseful for this reason!)
They then look over your mouth for any growths, abnormalities or areas of concern. This is an important step of oral cancer and disease screening that your dental professionals regularly check.
Dental hygienists prioritize gum health.
Next, hygienists chart the health of your gums. You may recall hearing numbers when they chart the health of your gums. Sometimes hygienists say these numbers out loud. In our office, the hygienists do this in their head, marking the numbers of each gum area in the patient chart on the computer.
When patients think about dental health, they often think about their teeth only, but dental health is also gum health. Gum tissues in our mouth are important to provide stability and support to hold in the teeth so they can best work to chew and talk. Without gums to hold our teeth in, they are loose and can’t function properly.
Hygienists evaluate your gum health by measuring the depth of each gum tissue pocket that holds a tooth. You may feel a small tool touching your gums as they work their way around your mouth, and that is them measuring the depths of each “pocket”. You may have some tender areas as they do this, and that could mean you have some degree of gum disease in that area. Gum pockets that measure from 1-3 millimeters are considered healthy, while any number above that raises concern. As the hygienists work on updating gum charting, they inform the patient of any changes from your last visit.
Next they begin the work of scaling. Scaling is a dental term used to describe removing plague and other build-up that occurs on your teeth and in your gum pockets. Perhaps you think of this as the “scratching” part of the cleaning, although I dislike that term.
Home care such as brushing and flossing are vital to dental health, but the scaling and cleaning that a dental hygienist does cannot be replicated at home. Hygienists use a variety of special tools to help remove all debris and stains. They polish and then floss your teeth prior to the dental exam.
Dental hygienists provide education and form strong patient relationships.
As hygienists do this important work during your recare visit, they often provide education to the patient. Many times I overhear conversations of hygienists informing patients of areas of gum recession during a cleaning or perhaps letting them know they are missing an area when brushing at home. Sometimes hygienists and dental professionals get a bad rap for making patients feel bad about their dental habits, but I’m always impressed by the way the hygienists I work with genuinely try to help, meeting patients where they are at with their dental health routines.
As a dentist, I’m thankful each day for the work hygienists do with patients. In all reality, patients typically spend more time with their hygienist than with me. I appreciate the trust patients feel with hygienists that they can openly spend an entire recare appointment talking through dental concerns. (And yes – there is plenty of time to talk about fun stuff too, like kids and grandkids, shopping at local stores and vacations!) Sometimes, patients feel more at ease going into detail with their hygienists than with me, and I think that speaks highly of the trust that hygienists work to build and maintain with patients they see.
In addition, hygienists inform me of any areas they are concerned about while performing the cleaning. I think this is also helpful because it ensures that the most thorough exams are being performed. And though hygienists cannot diagnose or treat decay, they do a great service to their patients when they ask questions and discuss with the treating dentist.
I can’t count the number of times I hear the phrase, “I need just a cleaning,” and I understand where those thoughts are coming from. But next time you go in for “just a cleaning,” keep in mind the important, thorough and tedious work a hygienist performs to ensure a lifetime of healthy gums and teeth for you to enjoy. That’s something that should make us all smile—not just in October during National Dental Hygiene Month, but all year round.
Mark Scallon, DDS
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