Physical Assessment

Treating elderly and medically compromised patients in a dental care setting have their own challenges that can potentially test any clinician to their limits,  The physical symptoms present in elderly patients may include but not be limited to disability with motor function, balance, and other behavioral issues.  For example, the greatest incidence of stroke is considered to be among adults sixty years and older, which further adds complexities to even simple dental procedures.  Encountering more compromised elderly patients on a daily basis is never considered easy; however, with additional training the dental staff can improve their patient handling techniques and thus provide treatment to the best of their capacity, knowledge and clinical judgment.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) Physical Status classification system was initially created in 1941 by the American Society of Anesthetists.  The purpose of the grading system is simply to assess the degree of a patient’s “sickness” or “physical state” prior to providing any treatment (Figure 1).  Describing patients’ preoperative physical status is used for record keeping, for communicating between colleagues, and to create a uniform system for statistical analysis.27

Figure 1. ASA Physical Status Classification System.27

Classification Description
ASA 1 Healthy patients
ASA 2 Mild to moderate systemic disease caused by the surgical condition or by other pathological processes, and medically well controlled
ASA 3 Severe disease process which limits activity but is not incapacitating
ASA 4 Severe incapacitating disease process that is a constant threat to life
ASA 5 Moribund patient not expected to survive 24 hours with or without an operation
ASA 6 Declared brain-dead patient whose organs are being removed for donor purposes

Taking a detailed medical history before starting any dental treatment is not only paramount but is a required ‘standard of care.’ Measuring the patient’s vital signs, including blood pressure, heart rate, pulse, and respiratory rate, should be a standard practice in all dental offices. The dental team should consider the physical characteristics of the patient before concentrating on their dental problems. A detailed medical history including medical diagnoses, an updated list of all medications along with past surgeries or hospitalizations give the clinician a fair chance to evaluate the given circumstances.17 This history may also identify the need for the administration of a prophylactic antibiotic due to patient’s orthopedic or cardiac status before proceeding intraorally.

Some common medical conditions that may potentially be identified include:

  1. Alzheimer’s Disease: Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It is a progressive disease that in its advanced stages has the tendency to destroy memory and other important mental functions. It’s considered to be part of a group of brain disorders that result in the loss of intellectual and social skills. These variations can be severe enough to interfere with the patient’s day-to-day life. The dental team has to be considerate and understand the severity of the condition before providing any instructions or discharging the patient from the clinic.28
  2. Arthritis: Arthritis generally is defined as an inflammation of one or more of joints. The most common forms are osteoarthritis that impact cartilage and rheumatoid arthritis that is considered to be an auto-immune disorder. The chief symptoms are joint pain and stiffness, which typically worsen with age. The sitting posture in a dental chair can be painful for the patient and must be corrected accordingly. There are specific pillows available (Figure 2) to provide extra support for the patients and make them more comfortable during their dental appointments.29
Figure 2.
Chair pillow
  1. Congestive Heart Failure (CHF): CHF, also known as “heart failure,” occurs when heart muscles do not pump blood properly. Certain medical conditions, such as coronary artery disease and hypertension, gradually impact the heart’s functionality to fill and pump efficiently. Every patient with a history of CHF should be made to relax during the whole appointment. Any change in posture or any procedure should be explained in advance so as to reduce moments of stress or even momentary panic.30
  2. Diabetes Mellitus (DM II): Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the way the body metabolizes blood glucose, is impaired. This is fairly important to both the dentist and dental hygienist as patients with uncontrolled DM-2 generally suffer with acute oral infections, periodontal disease and delayed wound healing. It has been shown in the literature that dental teams have a fairly high likelihood of detecting Type 2 DM in undiagnosed cases during initial dental screening.31,32
  3. Hypertension: High blood pressure or Hypertension (HTN) is a common condition in which the force of the blood against arterial walls is high enough that it may eventually cause health problems. A large number of older adults suffer from some form of HTN taking into consideration that narrowing of the arterial walls may be part of the normal aging process.33 The dental team’s role in screening undiagnosed and undertreated hypertension is very important since this may lead to improved monitoring and treatment.34 Measuring blood pressure should become part of routine practice in all dental offices. As per the report from the Panel Members Appointed to the Eighth Joint National Committee (JNC 8),35 new guidelines were issued in 2014 (Figure 3) for hypertension management using the best scientific evidence:
Figure 3. JNC 8 New Hypertension Management Guidelines.35
Category Systolic Diastolic
Normal <120 and <80
Prehypertension 120-139 or 80-89
High Blood Pressure/Hypertension
Stage 1 Hypertension 140-159 or 90-99
Stage 2 Hypertension ≥ 160 or ≥ 100
  1. Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis causes bones to become weak and brittle and with post-menopausal older women being at highest risk, osteoporosis-related fractures commonly occur in the hip, wrist or spine.36 Osteoporosis can lead to bone loss in the jaw and most commonly tooth loss. Delta Dental, in its 2008 report, stated the dentist may be the first health professional to suspect osteoporosis and to refer the patient to their primary physician for further investigation.37 Oral health professionals must also be careful not to place their patients at risk for bisphosphonate-related osteonecrosis of the jaw (BRONJ) as it occurs following invasive surgery such as tooth extractions and periodontal surgery in patients who are on or have received intravenous and oral forms of bisphosphonate therapy for various bone-related conditions. Since bisphosphonates have a half-life ranging up to 10 years,38 even those no longer on this medication may still be at risk. A detailed medical history for any patient with a diagnosis of osteoporosis along with the dosage, duration and route of bisphosphonate intake should be discussed before proceeding with any surgical procedures.39
  2. Parkinson’s Disease (PD): PD is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder caused by loss of dopaminergic and non-dopaminergic neurons in the brain affecting movement, muscle control, and balance as well as a number of other non- motor functions. The use of even the simplest oral hygiene aids such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss can be challenging for these patients and need be examined in detail. The oral hygiene devices and techniques (Figure 4) may require possible modification by the dentist or hygienist in order to make them more easily usable by the patient.40
Figure 4.
  1. Stroke: A stroke is a kind of “brain attack” with the main reason being the death of brain cells due to shortage of blood and deprivation of essential oxygen. This directly impacts the parts of the body under the control of that particular area of brain that’s affected. As a result speech, stability or other muscle coordination may be lost. Current literature recommends postponing dental treatment until 6-12 months after a stroke, based on the presumed risk of recurrent stroke.41,42

Most important, the dental hygienist or even the dentist should not hesitate to contact the patient’s primary physician requesting copies of clinical test reports such as INR values, if the patient is on anticoagulants, along with the patient’s medical diagnoses, and current medications in order to update the patient’s medical records at every visit. This requires active communication, building trust and frequent engagement with other healthcare professionals such as physicians, nurses, aides, pharmacists and anyone involved in providing care for the elderly patient. Even a minor fluctuation in the dosage of a patient’s current medication can hamper the outcome of the dental procedure. In order to have a better understanding of a patient’s dental outcome, a direct conversation with the previous dentist can be beneficial in understanding the behavioral patterns and any modifications in the treatment approach. Of utmost importance is the maintenance of comprehensive and accurate medical and treatment records, as all practitioners are required by law to maintain these records in order to provide evidence of continuity of care as well these records may be subpoenaed in medico-legal or insurance fraud cases.43

For wheelchair bound patients, the wheelchair should be moved as close as possible to the dental chair44 for the dental staff to have full access to their dental equipment. In some cases where the patient cannot be transferred to the dental chair, special head and neck support systems (Figure 5) can be employed that will provide support for the patient’s neck and head to minimize patient discomfort.

Figure 5.

The staff should also be trained in understanding the basic concepts of Safe Patient Handling (SPH) and be aware and accountable for providing appropriate assistance during the movement of patients.45,46 For patients having difficulty standing up or have reduced weight bearing capacities, they should be assisted when moving from their wheelchair to the dental chair and then back to their wheelchair using patient transfer devices or other mechanical,devices. The determination to have either a one-person or two-person transfer should be made considering the staff training and the disability of the patient. Transfer Boards, Pivot Discs, Transfer belts (Figure 6), EZ lift (Figure 7) or Hoyer lifts (Figure 8) can be used by the staff in transferring the patient to or from the wheelchair.

Figure 7.
EZ lift
Figure 8.
Hoyer lift