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Research Shows Dental Care Aids Recovery For Drug Addicts

May 23, 2019, 6:17 PM | Updated: May 24, 2019, 9:05 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Most of us know daily brushing and flossing are critical for oral health. Now, a first-of-it’s-kind study by a team of researchers at the University of Utah Dental School shows good oral health care can help the physical and emotional recovery of drug addicts.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today without the smile that I have today,” said Destiny Garcia.

Her smile is the first thing you see when you walk into the Salt Lake County Mayor’s office. She’s the constituent affairs and volunteer coordinator. Two years ago, she was a heroin addict, living on the streets, with terrible teeth.

“Before I went into treatment, I had one missing tooth (and) a couple broken teeth,” said Garcia.  “The only thing I took care of when I was an addict was my habit.”

Destiny Garcia works in the Salt Lake County Mayor's office

Destiny Garcia works in the Salt Lake County Mayor’s office

After 20 years of methamphetamine and heroin addiction, she was desperate to get clean.

“I remember sitting in a park getting high, and crying because I didn’t want to get high. But, I had to because I couldn’t function unless I did.”

She was arrested as part of Operation Rio Grande August 21, 2017. Today, she says she’s thankful for the opportunity that arrest created for her.

“It gave me the opportunity to change my life,” she said.

After 15 days in jail, she completed a nine-month recovery program at Odyssey House.

That’s where she found the healing power of a smile in a study led by Dr. Glen Hanson, vice-dean of the Dental School who is also a professor of pharmacology.

“These were just kind of blow your socks off kinds of results, much better than I had ever expected,” Hanson said of the results they were seeing halfway through the study.

Addicts notoriously neglect their teeth, he said. Hanson wanted to find out if opioid and heroin addicts would be more successful in recovery with comprehensive oral health care.

“Nobody has done this,” he said. “It’s always been emergency care for these people. It hasn’t been comprehensive dental care because of fiscal reasons and other sorts of reasons.”

A workforce study grant enabled him to set up a two-year study with patients Odyssey House and First Step House.  University of Utah dental students fixed the teeth in their lab.

“We are seeing an incredible enhancement of the positive outcomes of treating these patients when they get comprehensive dental care,” said Hanson.

Especially when compared with patients in addiction recovery not getting dental care.

Addicts who got the dental overhaul stayed in treatment about two times longer, were 80% more likely to complete treatment, more likely to stop using their primary drug and more likely to find a place to live if they were homeless. The study was published this week in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

By fixing their teeth, student dentists helped restore the function of the teeth, and self-esteem. It was a valuable experience for the recovering addict and the student dentists.

“Some of them come in with broken teeth they have a lot of pain in the mouth,” said Llely Duarte, a third year dental student who worked on those patients.  “I think it’s amazing, the transformation that we can provide for these patients.”

Many of those patients in addiction recovery had become unemployable while they were using drugs. The dental transformation changed that for many of them.

 “So, they go out and get that job,” said Hanson. “All of a sudden, they’re starting to feel good about themselves, and other people are saying they’re making progress.”

As a recovering addict who seized that opportunity for herself, Garcia believes it’s an important discovery.

“Now my smile matches my life and the way I feel inside,” she said.

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Research Shows Dental Care Aids Recovery For Drug Addicts