Tina Clarke, RDH, MEd, a clinical dental hygienist for 20 years and an educator for 14, offers some tips on how dental hygiene students can confidently go into anesthesia class.
Being a dental hygiene student is super stressful. We’ve all seen the memes of Jessica Simpson on day one of school compared to day 21. By the time you get to a course like pain management, your stress levels can move you into an overdrive of anxiety. Have no fear, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are 6 tips to help you stay calm and confident in your local anesthesia course, lovingly called “stab lab.”
1. REVIEW AND STUDY
At one point, you had all the names of the nerves, blood vessels, muscles, and bony anatomy memorized. You knew where they went and their function. Then the final exam came, and you dumped it all into that test … never to be thought of again.
Well, it’s time to dig into the hippocampus of your brain (the area where we store our knowledge) and review all of that anatomy. Before you head into the term, don’t just review your head and neck anatomy; refresh your memory on medical emergencies and pharmacology. These three courses are utilized in detail for your pain management course. As an added bonus, reviewing these courses again will reinforce the knowledge you gained and make your national board exam review that much easier.
Break up the information a little at a time. Don’t feel like you must spend hours poring over that information again. Pull out your notes and textbooks and give them a scan. It will get those brain juices flowing.
2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
You know all that assigned reading, video watching, and reflection questions that your instructor has you do before lab? There is a reason for this. It’s to help you know what you are supposed to do. I know there are times when you think the assignments are silly. You’ve thought, “Why do I have to write this paper on the pediatric patient I just treated? You watched me care for him or her. You already know how it went.”
When it comes to anesthesia, preparation is key. So, do the homework. I always tell my students to be as prepared for their classmate/patient as you’d want them to be when performing the same injection on you. This makes sense, right? I think it is safe to say nobody wants someone putting a needle in their face when they don’t know where it’s supposed to go. Doing the pre-lab review will give you the confidence you need to give your best shot.
3. MANAGE YOUR CAFFEINE INTAKE
College campuses know exactly what students need to stay alert and charged through the day. Coffee and energy drinks are everywhere. While these can be nice while you are sitting in the dark classroom looking at pictures of oral pathology, chugging a 20 oz iced mocha before lab may not be the wisest decision. I encourage you to regulate your caffeine intake. When you are highly caffeinated, keeping a steady hand and calm thoughts can be more challenging. On the flip side, if you are an avid caffeine user, don’t quit cold turkey and go through withdrawals while you are in lab. This will give you the shakes even more. I have worked with students on both ends of the spectrum and, ultimately, this one comes down to really knowing how your body reacts to stimulants and a little experimentation. As your experience and confidence grow, caffeine management won’t be as crucial.
If you can, plan your meals so you can eat before lab. This will provide you with the fuel source you need to stay shake free and focused. Did you know thinking and focusing burn calories? So, make sure your brain is fueled so you won’t go into hypoglycemic shock.
Plus, after your lab, you may be numb. That is not the ideal time to bite into your apple. You may get a delicious bite of that healthy fruit but also chomp away on your lip, too. Trust me. I’ve seen it happen. Even the most aware person can inflict a little unintentional self-harm.
Take some time to be by yourself. Relax, meditate, go for a walk, sit in your car, whatever helps YOU take a break. Doing these types of activities can calm your mind and help reduce the shakes when you are practicing. This will also remove you from the nervous energy of everyone else. Of course, there is a time to review with your fellow novice syringe slingers, but if you feel your anxiety levels rise, get up and take a 5-minute retreat to set your mind and prepare for the task ahead.
During this time, visualize yourself going through the process—everything from setting up your anesthesia tray (yes, actually visualize yourself putting the topical on the tray), all the way through assembly of your syringe, giving the injection, recapping, and disassembly. Visualization does not replace hands-on practice, but it can enhance your confidence and reinforce your muscle memory.
And breathe while you are giving your injection. If you hold your breath, the patient will probably hold his or her breath, too. Passing out on top of your patient due to hypoxia is not a good plan. At each phase of your injection, when you are pausing for permission to proceed, take a deep, slow breath. You may even have to say “breathe” aloud to remind yourself. As your skill advances, you will be able to talk your patient through his or her breathing, but for beginners, focus on your own first.
6. TRUST THE PROCESS
Trust your instructors. They want you to succeed just as much, and maybe even more than you. If you are anxious about giving or getting injections, talk to them. Let them know what your concerns are, so they can be addressed. And know it’s OK to talk through the process out loud. This is especially true for your first couple of injections. Verbalizing what you are doing while doing it allows the process to become ingrained in your everyday clinical practice. It also helps your instructors know what you are thinking, which can make them better coaches and help them provide valuable feedback.
No matter what, know that it’s OK to be nervous about giving injections. Even the most seasoned clinicians have moments of uncertainty. However, when you are done with this course you will start to feel like a “real hygienist.” The ability to provide safe and effective anesthesia to your patient not only enhances your ability to care for him or her, but helps your patient stay calm in the dental chair.
If you have other tips that have helped you become a rock star in stab lab, let me know. I’d love to share them.