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21st April 2016

Open Wide

A new scheme in the South West aims to improve dental health for people with learning disabilities through a peer-support project. Dental health in this sector is an important matter.

The last few weeks has seen me spending more time than I’d like in the dentist’s chair, as some of my more antique NHS fillings have given up on me. I have also been working with our local special need dental service to agree a new service so that people I support can access appropriate and sensitive dental care in emergencies.

So I was impressed to read that the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise, part of Plymouth University’s dental school, had enlisted a team of people with learning disabilities to act as ambassadors and spread the word about good oral care. This team undertook six weeks of training in dental health, including good brushing, oral hygiene, dietary choices and how to find and access a dentist. As a consequence, they can now confidently spread the word to others who may find it difficult to look after their teeth.

Lazy, fearful or ill informed?

It’s a truism that many people don’t think about their teeth until their teeth remind them they have been neglected. Although around 60% of adults attend the dentist for check ups, a shocking 25% don’t brush twice a day and 10% admit to regularly forgetting to brush at all! Habits around dental health are formed as children; we need to support kids to brush, reduce sugar in the diet and encourage check ups at regular intervals.

In the case of people with learning disabilities, there are other reasons to make sure their dental health is not neglected. In those with profound and multiple disabilities, there may be swallowing and chewing problems that make brushing tricky. Added to this, the use of some medications can lead to gum growth and swelling, with bleeding and infection then becoming a challenge. Dry mouth, another side effect of some drugs, can increase the risk of infection, as bacteria are not flushed away from the teeth and gums by saliva. Finally, tooth grinding, or bruxism, is where teeth can be damaged or eroded over time, causing pain, sharp edges and leading to headaches and facial pain.

Ways to help

It’s not easy to help someone with oral care. Many people are sensitive about others touching their mouth and to introduce a toothbrush can be frightening. People are often in pain before they are taken to the dentist to examine their teeth and this makes the whole experience highly traumatic. Dental surgeries are usually bright, hard and odd-smelling; a person with autism might struggle to take in the new sounds, smells and surfaces; that’s even before you need to access their mouth.

Some useful sources of information and help are here;

http://pamis.org.uk/cms/files/leaflets/oral_health_leaflet.pdf

https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/fds/publications-clinical-guidelines/clinical_guidelines/documents/BSD%20Guidelines%20(Web).pdf

http://www.sepho.org.uk/Download/Public/12757/1/valuing_peoples_oral_health%5B1%5D.pdf

And to read about the Peninsula Dental Ambassadors - http://www.peninsuladental.org.uk/community-projects/all-smiles-for-pioneering-dental-ambassadors/

Keep Smiling!

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Ginny Tyler

Learning Disabilities Specialist

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