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Dental care needs of childhood abuse victims

Certain aspects of dental treatment can remind victims of childhood sexual abuse of their past ordeal, boosting their anxiety levels and often leading to missed appointments, according to a study recently published in The Journal of the American Dental Association.

"It is not difficult to see the parallels between some aspects of the abuse experience and elements of dental care," the JADA study says. "Patients are expected to trust the professional to do what is best for them. The professional often assures them, much as the abusers did, that while the experience may be painful or unpleasant, in the end it will be good for them."

Quoting figures on the prevalence of childhood sex abuse, researchers speculate that dentists probably see patients who were abused "several times a week."

The study offers tips dentists can use to help abuse victims become more comfortable with dental treatment—all tips supplied by the patients themselves—including:

  • Avoid asking patients about the history of their abuse. Ask, instead, whether any aspects of dental treatment are particularly difficult for them.
  • Allow the patient to observe part of the treatment using a mirror to reduce the feeling of vulnerability.
  • Explain each treatment step in advance ("inform before you perform") and allow for frequent breaks.
  • Avoid reprimanding patients for neglecting their oral health. Instead, dentists should ask how they can help patients take better care of their teeth.
  • Substitute vinyl gloves for latex gloves with patients who may associate latex with condoms and condoms with abuse.

The study notes that because dentists are likely to treat, knowingly or unknowingly, victims of childhood sex abuse, "it is important for the dental team to gain some insights about how they can work with these patients more effectively."

Please contact the ADA if you have questions about this article.

©2010 American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.

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