Managing Dental Care for Patients with Special Needs

Dental care is important for everyone’s health and well-being. Yet, some individuals may be limited in their ability to receive dental care. According to the 2021 U.S. Census Bureau report, approximately 42.5 million Americans live with disabilities. Fortunately, special needs dentistry is a subset of dentistry that focuses on making dentistry accessible for individuals with developmental, mental, or physical impairments by providing special facilities and services to meet anyone’s needs. This article will discuss the complete information on dental care for patients with special needs.

  • In 2016, approximately 48% of Americans with disabilities had no dental check-up within a year, according to research published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry.
Managing Dental Care for Patients with Special Needs

What is Special Needs Dentistry?

Special needs dentistry involves unique approaches to dental care for patients with medical, physical, or psychological circumstances to ensure all individuals receive quality dental care. From special services and equipment, to trained staff, to other dental environment accommodations, all patients regardless of their circumstances can be treated with the services they need to ensure their optimal health.

Understanding Special Needs Patients

Elderly Patients

As we get older, the body continues to change, and dental care can become more challenging. Elderly patients may need to visit the dentist more frequently, as they are more at risk for the development of dental diseases. Natural wear of the teeth and gums occurs over time, making older adults more susceptible to tooth decay and gum disease. Older adults are also more likely to experience dry mouth, tooth sensitivity, and medical conditions that can make taking care of their teeth challenging.

Individuals with Mental Disabilities

Those with mental impairments often require additional help when it comes to their oral health. They often require a caregiver who can help them follow and perform dental home care.

Children with Behavioral Needs

Children with behavioral conditions like Autism often experience limitations in maintaining good oral hygiene due to intellectual, sensory, and motor impairments. These individuals are also more likely to experience dental disease than other children, as well as experience oral anomalies like delayed tooth eruption and malformed teeth. Trained dental professionals can help deliver effective care for these patients by altering the dental environment to meet their needs.

Patients with Mobility Issues

Dexterity is needed to achieve adequate oral hygiene care. Individuals with mobility issues often struggle to perform regular dental habits like brushing and flossing. These individuals may need assistance from a caregiver to accomplish oral tasks. Other patients with trouble walking may require assistance in accessing and navigating through a dental office.

People with Complex Medical Conditions

People who are immunocompromised or suffer from complex medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or respiratory diseases for instance may require specific needs when it comes to dental treatment. Dental professionals will review medical history and their medications and may need to interact with their medical physicians to provide comprehensive care.

Special Requirements for Patients with Special Needs

Appointment Scheduling

When scheduling an appointment, it is important to offer as much information as possible, including any medical questions, physician contact information, or requested modifications for dental care. You can also discuss your preferred appointment timing.

Home Care

Home care can be challenging for individuals with special needs, but it is necessary to maintain for a healthy smile. Dental professionals and caregivers can demonstrate brushing and flossing techniques. The use of electric toothbrushes and adaptive aids may help certain individuals accomplish their oral hygiene routine.

Medical And Dental History

An accurate medical and dental history is necessary to provide treatment. This includes providing current medications, medical conditions, allergies, medical and dental surgeries, and hospitalizations.

Informed Consent

Informed consent is obtained prior to starting any treatment. Dental professionals will communicate with the patient and caregivers regarding any present dental health conditions noted, treatment options, and the potential benefits and risks of treatment. Informed consent is essentially a conversation, and the patient and caregiver can ask any questions.


Your dental professional will determine if sedation is an option to aid in treatment. This decision is often based on factors such as the patient’s medical and dental history, patient cooperation, and the type of procedure that is necessary. Sedation is performed by a specially trained dental professional who will monitor the patient throughout the procedure. Dental sedation can make patients more relaxed and comfortable and make it easier for the dentist to complete the treatment.

Mobility Aids

Patients with mobility aids such as wheelchairs require additional assistance when navigating through a dental office. Oral health professionals will determine if patients are able to transfer to the dental chair. Trained staff will ensure patient safety and comfort throughout the process. Extra support pads may be used to aid in patient comfort.


Caregivers can be great resources for patients with special needs even when it comes to their oral health. Patients and caregivers will be informed about oral hygiene practices and tips on oral care modifications and dental products that can accommodate anyone’s needs.

Behavioral Management

Behavioral management techniques are commonly used for patients with special needs. This includes methods like positive reinforcement of hygiene instructions, distraction techniques using aids like music, and the Tell-Show-Do technique. Tell-Show-Do involves dental professionals and staff simply explaining the procedure, demonstrating what the procedure entails, and then performing the treatment exactly as described and demonstrated.

Treatment Planning

After a thorough dental examination, dental professionals will create a treatment plan that encompasses all the patient’s needs. They will discuss all existing dental conditions that the patient has and treatment options, along with the risks, benefits, and alternatives to treatment. Before any treatment begins, a dental professional will obtain informed consent and answer any questions and address any concerns.

Barriers to Delivering Dental Care to Special Needs Patients

Physical Barriers

Physical limitations can make accessing dental care more challenging for some patients. Some dental offices may not provide the necessary dental facilities to accommodate individuals with specific physical limitations.

Communication Barrier

Language differences can lead to many challenges for some patients when it comes to dental care. Finding a dentist and understanding dental treatment plans are just a few of the many barriers that exist for patients who do not speak English.

Systemic Barriers

Individuals with special needs often face systemic barriers to dental care. Dental technology and treatment are not readily accessible to all populations. Patients with special needs often face geographic, social, economic, physical, cultural, communication, among many other barriers to receiving adequate dental care.

Socioeconomic Barriers

As dental procedures can be costly, this can create an obstacle for patients obtaining dental care. Certain insurance policies may not cover the specific dental treatments required by patients with special needs.

Psychological Barriers

Psychosocial barriers, such as dental anxiety or phobia, and little knowledge of oral health can cause challenges for patients with special needs when it comes to their dental care.

How Specialized Dental Clinics Overcome Obstacles for Special Needs Patients?

Expertise and Training

Dental professionals obtain training on treating patients with special needs throughout their education. This can help bridge the gap in knowledge on helping patients manage their oral health and make dental care more accessible.

Specialized Equipment

Some patients with special needs may require special equipment to perform regular dental hygiene practices. This can include mouth props to keep the mouth open, pillows to keep the head elevated, bite sticks, reshaped toothbrush handles, and other items geared to help individuals of all abilities.

Tailored Dental Procedures

Dental professionals can tailor dental procedures for patients with special needs, regardless of medical or physical impairment. This can allow for safe and effective treatment for proper maintenance of the patient’s oral health.

Individualized Care Plans

Different treatment adjustments can be made to meet the specific treatment needs of patients with special needs. Based on medical and dental history, dental professionals will create a comprehensive plan that is designed to make the patient’s experience simple, relaxing, and safe.

Accessible Facilities

All dental offices must be wheelchair accessible to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Most dental offices can help patients in wheelchairs navigate throughout the dental office and modify the operatories to accommodate patients’ needs.

Collaboration with Caregivers

Caregivers are key participants in special needs patients’ oral care. They are often the first line of defense for helping them practice good oral hygiene. Dental professionals will collaborate with caregivers to help provide the best care, taking into account the information they provide regarding behavioral management, treatment needs, and communication tactics.

Visit Gentle Dental- Specialized Dental Clinic for Special Needs Patients

Looking for a specialized dental clinic? Our offices at Gentle Dental are equipped to address all oral care necessities for special needs patients. Our trained dental professionals can offer patients with special needs a supportive and comfortable environment. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.


Making health care affordable, accessible, and all-inclusive is extremely important for the health of our entire society. Dental professionals go through advanced training to provide the best care for individuals with special needs. They will consider medical and dental history and proper assessment of any conditions and tailor the dental environment and treatment based on each person's needs. Caregivers, who also play a significant role in their oral care, will collaborate closely with dental professionals to ensure optimal health is achieved.