Data have shown that a staggering estimated 38 percent of American adults suffered from a substance abuse problem in 2017, and with a looming opioid crisis and many small towns across the nation dealing with drug epidemics, those numbers don’t seem like they’ll shrink anytime soon. But there finally may be some good news from the field of dentistry about treating substance abuse – and it’s all about oral health.

It all began when the University of Utah reached out to two local drug rehabilitation programs called First Step and Odyssey House. The initial goal of this partnership was to allow university students to work on the teeth of the patients coming through the two drug rehabilitation programs, benefiting both the students who needed the experience and the patients who desperately needed the dental care.

Program directors noted that the program was a success but soon began to realize the program was having some unintended benefits, too.

Dr. Allison Lesko is a dentist in Fort Collins, Colorado, who did not participate in the program, but who says its outcomes are nothing short of astounding.

“Program administrators at both treatment facilities began reporting to the university that patients in the dental program were staying in drug rehabilitation twice as long as those not in the dental program,” says Lesko. “They also noticed an 80 percent increase in the number of patients who completed the substance abuse program.”

But that’s not all. According to researchers at the University of Utah, not only did these patients stay longer, but their substance abuse treatments were also more effective.

“Patients in the dental program were two to three times more likely to stay sober following their treatment than those who did not participate,” says Lesko.

Another benefit? The dental program participants were also two to three times more likely to get jobs, and those who were homeless prior to treatment were able to secure housing.

But all this success just from fixing their teeth? Lesko believes it.

“Your teeth aren’t just tools to help you chew. The way they look can make or break your confidence, and when your teeth hurt it can be hard to focus on anything else,” she says. “Furthermore, for someone who is in constant pain to have that pain alleviated can eliminate at least some of the need to self-medicate. So there’s an element there that may help motivate them to stick with the drug treatment.”

Whatever the reason may be, the University of Utah has decided to continue and expand the program so that more patients can get the oral health care they need and hopefully benefit from the same impressive results as those in the initial study group.