Nursing Assessment of Dental Problems

Julia Buttermore, DMD, is Chief Dental Officer, Federal Medical Center, Carswell, Fort Worth, TX. This post is based on her session “Nurses’ Assessment of Dental Problems” taking place at the 2015 National Conference on Correctional Health Care in Dallas, TX, October 17-21, 2015. Learn more about the conference and register HERE.

Dental conditions can be a great concern for correctional nurses, yet, most received little or no training about dental conditions in nursing school. Most traditional nursing positions don’t involve dental assessments so many nurses enter the correctional specialty unprepared.

What’s the Big Deal?

First of all, a nurse is most often the first person an inmate sees about a dental concern. This is usually at a receiving screening or through the nursing sick call process. So, nurses must be able to determine the nature of the issue and make a decision about urgency of treatment. A dental episode might be remedied with instruction on self-treatment, may need assignment to the next available dental appointment, may need urgent evaluation by a dentist, or may need emergency treatment in the acute care setting. It requires significant clinical judgment abilities to appropriately manage dental issues.

Another reason dental conditions are a concern for correctional nurses is because there are so many of them in our patient population. Our patients are less likely to have received dental care in the past and many have a lifestyle that does not include high levels of dental hygiene. Therefore dental decay and periodontal disease are seen frequently. Our patients come from violent backgrounds that can result in tooth trauma. They also indulge in high levels of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use. All these substances have a negative effect on dental health.  Methamphetamine use, in particular, can cause severe dental erosion and decay. Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs can mask tooth pain. Once incarcerated and withdrawn from these substances, inmates feel increasing mouth pain that leads to dental requests for evaluation and treatment.

Finally, systemic chronic conditions and infections affect dental health. Nurses who understand the relationship of dental conditions to systemic disease can often activate medical evaluation when a dental manifestation is observed. For example, canker sores or herpes can appear on the mouth of an immunosuppressed individual and periodontal infection might exacerbate blood glucose levels in diabetics.

Where to Start

A good assessment starts with an evaluation of the patient’s mouth pain. Here are some important questions to ask.

  • How long has it been hurting? (Just now? 24 hours? 3 months? Years?)
  • Does it hurt spontaneously or when eating, drinking?
  • Does the pain wake you up at night?
  • Describe the pain quality: aching, throbbing, pressure, tingling
  • How long does it hurt? (<1 minute? 30 minutes to 1 hour? all day?)
  • Does anything help the pain?
  • Use the pain scale of 0-10 to determine a baseline level of discomfort

Dental conditions can affect the ability to breathe and swallow. These are two immediate concerns in evaluating any dental condition. Ability to breathe and swallow is affected by infection, traumatic injury, persistent bleeding in the oral cavity, or swelling. Impairment of breathing or swallowing needs immediate emergency treatment. Inspect the mouth for swelling. Take the patient’s temperature.

If this is a traumatic injury, check for a broken jaw. Mandibular fracture is a common injury due to assault or falling. Malocclusion (teeth not fitting together normally) is an indication of a mandibular fracture.

A New Skill

Since most correctional nurses come to the specialty with little training or experience with dental assessment, you may need to develop your own dental training program to develop skill in this important area of nursing practice behind bars. This can involve encouraging your facility dentist to provide in-services and hands-on practice assessing patients under their direction. You may also be able to discuss dental assessments and findings as a debrief of urgent or emergent evaluations. Dental trauma and infections tend to be the most common conditions requiring nursing assessment so these are good places to start.

Do you assess dental conditions in your practice? Share your experience in the comments section of this post.

This post is part of a series discussing topics addressed during sessions of the 2015 National Conference on Correctional Health Care. All posts in this series can be found HERE.

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  1. I see lots of after hours dental “emergencies” but, like most nurses, have little dental assessment training. This article is good but doesn’t say much about what to look for in a dental assessment and what findings might mean. Can anyone recommend an assessment tool for nurses to conduct initial dental assessment and determine urgency for dental follow up or need for immediate intervention?