Study explores dental care needs of child sex abuse victims

Sept. 23, 2005
Study also notes that treating victims of childhood sex abuse can present unique challenges for dentists and dental office staff members.

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 published in the September issue of The Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA).

The study, conducted by a team of Canadian researchers, also notes that treating victims of childhood sex abuse can present unique challenges for dentists and dental office staff members.

"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."

Based at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, the research team privately interviewed 49 men and 19 women; they also interviewed another nine men in a group setting. All 77 subjects were self-described victims of childhood sexual abuse.

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

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

* Avoid asking patients about the history of their abuse. Ask, instead, whether any aspects of dental treatment are particularly difficult for them.

* Offer "same-day" appointments to cut back on cancellations and rescheduling.

* 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 JADA 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."

Note: Although this article appears in the Journal of the American Dental Association, it does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of the American Dental Association.