Oral Health and Trauma

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Sydney, Sept 25: Dr. Sharonne Zaks AO, a prominent Melbourne dentist with over two decades of private practice experience, has uncovered a troubling connection between sexual assault survivors and poor oral health. Her findings, which shed light on the emotional trauma triggered by dental appointments, are being shared at the World Dental Congress in Sydney, running until September 27.
Dr. Zaks noticed a disheartening pattern among some female patients, prompting her to investigate further. It became apparent that many of these women were survivors of sexual assault, and the experience of being in the dental chair eerily recreated conditions reminiscent of their past trauma. Similarly, survivors of family or domestic violence have reported comparable triggers.
“Dental appointments can trigger memories of sexual assault and trauma to resurface due to the many parallels they share, which explains survivors’ widespread anxiety and avoidance. This results in very poor oral health,” explained Dr. Zaks.
The dental chair experience, with patients lying prone in the care of an authority figure, unable to move or speak, while their mouths are worked on with fingers and sharp instruments, often involves a loss of control and a feeling of powerlessness. These elements collectively induce intense distress, causing sexual assault survivors to avoid dental care, even when they have significant oral health issues. Consequently, many of them suffer from severe advanced dental diseases and experience intense shame and embarrassment.
Dr. Zaks emphasized the need for dental professionals to be vigilant, as around one-third of female patients and one-sixth of male patients have survived sexual assault, and most cases remain undisclosed. Recognizing the signs, such as damage from coping strategies like addictions manifesting in the mouth, is crucial.
Furthermore, Dr. Zaks highlighted that 75 per cent of injuries resulting from family violence involve the head, neck, face, and mouth. Dentists often serve as the first and only point of contact for survivors, placing them in a unique position to identify and support these individuals by connecting them with the necessary services, potentially saving lives.
During her presentation at the World Dental Congress, Dr. Zaks will guide dentists on recognizing survivors, rebuilding trust and safety, responding to disclosures, sharing information and reporting obligations, referral procedures, and providing tailored care. She has adapted the MARAM guidelines, originally developed in response to the Royal Commission into Family Violence, for private dental practice for the first time. Dr. Zaks has also integrated the trauma-informed approach into the Australian dental setting, empowering clinicians to handle the complexities of this sensitive issue with confidence and sensitivity.

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