How Vermont dentists help battle the opioid epidemic

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Vermont health professionals continue to tackle the opioid addiction crisis, and now oral health professionals are being reminded of their part in prevention.

Our Christina Guessferd was at a conference Monday where Vermont's dental community discussed the need to treat young patients' pain in both body and mind.

"I was an injured survivor of the Columbine shooting. I was shot twice and witnessed the murder of my best friend," said Austin Eubanks of the Foundry Treatment Center.

Speaking to a room of Vermont dental professionals, Eubanks says at just 17 years old, he was prescribed opiates to treat not only his physical pain but also his psychological pain.

"Because they are incredibly effective at treating the short-term symptoms of emotional pain," Eubanks said.

He says that's where his long battle with addiction started -- when he was young and emotionally vulnerable. It's also at about that age that many people get their wisdom teeth taken out, after which opiates are often prescribed for the pain.

"That really does cause a fair amount of swelling and discomfort for a three to five day period for most patients," said Dr. Thomas Connolly, a retired oral surgeon.

Connolly says it used to be an expectation that opioids be prescribed after wisdom tooth removal, but he says now that expectation has dramatically changed.

"We began looking at our own individual practices with regard to opioid prescribing and once we began to see the numbers we were prescribing and how it may impact some of the younger patients we treated, we began restricting those significantly," Connolly said.

"It used to be every time I had someone that would come in with a toothache, antibiotic and pain medication, but those days are over," said Dr. Cassandra Coakley of the Vermont State Dental Society.

Coakley says that's in large part because dental patients are now less likely to ask for opiates.

"Because it's been really well-publicized that they can take ibuprofen, a combination of ibuprofen and acetaminophen, you know, Tylenol and Advil," Coakley said.

Now, the dental community is taking Eubanks' advice with the goal of treating patients holistically. That's why Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says the dentist's office could be a great place to screen adolescents for susceptibility to addiction.

"Because people generally honestly talk to someone in a health care setting and tell them what's actually going on," Levine said. "So it's a nice entryway to connecting them with the services that might help very early on."