Becoming the Ninja Dentist

My first two years in dental school I spent holding back tears. I knew dental school was going to be a challenge, but one thing I was not expecting was physical pain. I had expected sleep deprivation from studying and mental fatigue, but not physical pain at the intense level I felt. The pain radiated from my neck, shoulders, and upper back. It was sharp, piercing, and constant. I could not concentrate in class or clinic. It was draining the life out of me. I just wanted to lie flat on my back, close my eyes, and wish it would all go away.

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My first two years in dental school I spent holding back tears. I knew dental school was going to be a challenge, but one thing I was not expecting was physical pain. I had expected sleep deprivation from studying and mental fatigue, but not physical pain at the intense level I felt. The pain radiated from my neck, shoulders, and upper back. It was sharp, piercing, and constant. I could not concentrate in class or clinic. It was draining the life out of me. I just wanted to lie flat on my back, close my eyes, and wish it would all go away.

I was miserable during that period and so very envious of my other classmates who were pain free. I thought, "Should I quit? Should I drop out of dentistry altogether?" I hadn't even started my career and I was already dreading it. There was no way I could endure this type of physical torture for 30 years.

Fast-forward to the present. This past spring on a Friday night, I found myself in Bayfront Park in downtown Miami surrounded by bright lights and television cameras. I faced a tremendous construction of angled platforms, scaffolds, and ramps with high ropes dangling over water. I was getting ready to compete in the athletic adventure of a lifetime: The heart-racing obstacle course on NBC's hit show, "American Ninja Warrior." I had no pains and no aches. I felt in top form. My body felt different than eight years prior, and I had not given up on dentistry to pursue another career.

That night was exhilarating on many levels. The adrenaline rush of the competition was intoxicating. I found myself competing on national television, all while being in the sixth month of my ground-up construction, start-up dental practice. I was more involved in dentistry than ever and had no pain. I felt at the top of my game.

So what had changed? How did I heal and recover? How did I transform from the back-brace-wearing, chronic-pain-suffering dental student to a Ninja Dentist, an athlete to be featured on American Ninja Warrior?

It began with finding the cause of the problem and aggressively pursuing solutions. I saw sports medicine physicians, physical therapists, chiropractors, and massage therapists for my chronic pain. With their guidance, I discovered the cause of my physical pain was immobility and the lack of proper movement. Most of my waking hours were spent seated, shoulders slumped, head down and forward, looking over a textbook or laptop. In clinic, it was the same, horribly seated position ... but over a patient. When I wasn't in class or in clinic, my exercise of choice was indoor cycling. There I was hunched and seated yet again. Putting my body in this position repetitively, day in, day out, was causing musculoskeletal debilitation.

Becoming pain free was a process. I had to incorporate the right type of movement back into my day and decrease the time spent in these harmful, seated, slumped positions. Today, I am doing more dentistry (especially with the long days required by a start-up dental practice), but I continue to be pain free.

How have I engineered more movement throughout the day? And how can you, any dentist or practitioner, do this ... even the non-athlete or non-exerciser? I will share with you two of the most effective changes that have helped me.

The first is that I have removed the temptation to sit down in my private office. I do enough sitting throughout the day, treating patients and talking with them in the operatories. My body certainly does not need more sitting time. Sitting puts the body in a static posture that, over time, stresses the back, hips, shoulders, and legs. Studies have shown time spent sitting is correlated to developing heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions, and these risks are not negated even if you do exercise regularly. To reduce my time spent sitting, I have installed a wall-mounted, stand-up desk. I chose the economical route, going with an "Ikea hack" because my start-up budget was very limited. I converted wall-mounted Ikea cabinets (Besta model) to a stand-up desk for less than $200. I mounted the cabinets at a height that would allow me to stand straight up in front of my computer monitor and keyboard. I stand to do all my clinical notes, computer work, and reading. I avoid sitting while getting any of my office work done.

The next of the key elements, and probably my favorite, is a pull-up bar over my doorway to my office. Yes, I can't deny that I do pull-ups between patients, but the bar's main purpose is simply for me to grab and hang. Just hanging and elongating the spine is instant traction and instant relief from any back tightness and discomfort. I just let my feet dangle and the vertebrae lengthen for five seconds. Doing this with some deep breaths is instantly rejuvenating. You've got to try it. The pull-up bar I use is called Perfect Pull-up ($19.99 from Walmart). You can find one at any store that sells sporting goods. You can easily adjust the width and it's a cinch to mount.

The stand-up desk and pull-up bar are just two strategies I use to be more productive in dentistry and to help me practice pain free. I do have gymnastics rings and Stall bars (Google it), along with a yoga mat that I use to incorporate "movement snacks" during the day.

If you're practicing in pain, or if your day involves too much sitting, it doesn't have to be this way. Take steps today and soon you'll be a Ninja Dentist too.


Desirée Walker, DDS, is a general dentist and owner of her start-up practice, Lumber River Dental, in Lumberton, N.C. Outside of her dental practice and "ninja" training (for her next appearance on "American Ninja Warrior") she is a fitness coach and motivational speaker for other dental professionals. She can be contacted at drwalker@lumbertondental.com.

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