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Professional Dental Care for Special Needs Patients

Most dentists will gladly work with and make special arrangements for patients with special needs.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports nearly 1 in 5 Americans live with an intellectual and/or physical disability. Some disabilities can make it difficult, or even impossible, to maintain good oral hygiene. For people living with disabilities, even tasks like brushing their teeth, can be problematic. This inability to take care of one’s teeth increases the likelihood of tooth decay and gum disease.

While people who live with physical or developmental disabilities can have a hard time performing the physical actions needed to maintain good oral hygiene, someone with a mental disability may not understand the importance of dental health. For him or her, even keeping regular dental visits can be a somewhat overwhelming experience having to adapt to the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the dental office.

But as dental health affects overall health, it's still important for them to go to the dentist, which means finding ways to make the experience less troublesome by finding a dentist for special needs patients.

The Dental Office Visit for Special Needs

A special needs patient may require a special needs dentist, and the chances are good the patient will need to see a dentist more often than what would normally be required of a patient. Dentists will want to check for signs of dental problems more frequently when patients don’t have the ability to brush and floss on their own.

Dental patients who suffer from a stroke, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, autism, Down Syndrome, genetic disorders, paralysis and even arthritis can need a little extra dental care to ensure they can maintain optimal dental health.

Here are some things to consider for dental patients living with disabilities.

Choosing a dentist

Choose a dentist who accommodates special needs. A pediatric dentist may be a good choice because of the special training they receive working with children. Many accredited dental schools now have classes devoted to working with special needs patients, and some provide care for the disabled in their clinics.

Preparing for the dental visit 

Special needs patients often benefit by knowing about and preparing for the dental office visit ahead of time. Waiting until the last minute to tell them about the visit can make the experience of going to the dentist more of a challenge for them and form negative associations that make subsequent visits unnecessarily hard.

A good tactic to use when preparing a patient to see a special needs dentist is just to have a conversation about the appointment. Use video, photos, graphics, drawings, or whatever tools you can to help get a better understanding of the process so the patient knows what to expect.

Making the experience a positive one

Proper planning is crucial to scheduling a dental visit for a special needs patient. Just as you wouldn’t want to schedule family portraits to be taken during the baby’s normal naptime, it’s also important to schedule the appointment at a time when the dental patient will be most conductive to the experience.

Consider the likelihood that there may be a short wait before the patient will see the dentist, and a wait if a local anesthetic is used to numb pain. Bring magazines, tablets, phones, or other activities to keep them occupied so their mind isn’t overrun with worry about what’s going to happen once the dentist comes in to see them.

Finally, make appointments with a dentist or dental hygienist the patient likes. Seeing a familiar face can go a long way toward helping patients get comfortable.

Accommodating physical handicaps

When choosing a dentist, find out if the office has wheelchair access and plan for how to transfer the patient from the wheelchair to the dental chair. Let the office know if the patient needs to be restrained or supported during dental treatment. In some cases, a mouth prop can help keep the patient's mouth open when they can't do it on their own. When providing a medical history, list any allergies to dental materials, such as metal or latex.

Considering Sedation

If a local anesthetic won’t be sufficient to numb the pain and ease anxiety during the dental visit, a special needs dentist may recommend sedation dentistry to relax a patient during treatment.

Handling At-Home Care

Special needs patients should have an oral hygiene routine to maintain their smile and their dental health. Here are some of the tools you can use to make it easier for patients and their caregivers to maintain good dental health:

Homemade Devices -- For patients who have a hard time holding a toothbrush, consider finding a way to make it easier to grip a toothbrush by fortifying the handle with wrap tape or an elastic bandage. You can even attach a tennis ball, sponge or rubber grip to the handle.

Electric Toothbrushes -- Mechanical toothbrushes are an excellent option for those who have trouble brushing on their own.

Dental Floss -- Waxed floss is easier and dental floss holders and floss sticks are available for those who have a hard time working with strings of floss.

Toothpastes and Mouth Rinses -- Fluoride toothpaste helps prevent cavities, and certain mouth rinses can help control periodontal disease.

Diet -- A diet low in sugar, carbs, and even sugary fruit can reduce the possibility of tooth decay.

Taking the right steps to keep your family's health in check and staying on top of their dental health keeps everyone feeling great. Appropriate professional dental care and at-home oral hygiene, a special needs patient will be smiling for years to come.

For help finding a special needs dentist near you, call 1-800-DENTIST. We can point you in the right direction.