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Dr. Benavent Solves Diagnostic Mysteries in the Brotman Facial Pain Clinic

Written by Adam Zewe

Clinical Assistant Professor Vanessa Benavent, DDS '09, is as much a detective as she is a dentist. As the clinical director of the Brotman Facial Pain Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD), she pieces together subtle clues to diagnose patients who suffer from unknown chronic pain conditions.

Many patients who visit the Brotman Facial Pain Clinic have bounced between different doctors and dentists for years, while never receiving effective treatment for their pain. Dr. Benavent treats patients who suffer from temporomandibular joint disorders, muscle and face pain, nerve pain, mystery pain in the head and neck and even unpredictable headaches. It is often difficult to sort through years of medical records while searching for a relevant clue to the cause of a patient's condition. "These patients can have complex histories. It is a challenge to figure out what might be happening and what we can offer them. The art is in making the diagnosis," she says.

Once the patient receives a diagnosis, providing an effective treatment can be a long-term process. Most patients are treated using conservative methods, including jaw rest and muscle care, and they often work closely with physical therapists and habit awareness counselors, Dr. Benavent says. "There is no magic pill for facial pain. We definitely empower the patients to take care of themselves," she remarks.

More practitioners are now referring patients to the clinic earlier in their treatments, which often leads to more effective diagnosis and care. In addition, UMSOD has started a student rotation in the Brotman Facial Pain Clinic, so fourth-year dental students learn the subtleties of taking detailed patient histories and diagnosing mysterious conditions. "I think it helps open the students' eyes. In their professional careers, if they come across a patient who doesn't respond to traditional treatment, they'll have a better idea of what might be going on," she says.

Chronic facial pain is also at the center of a growing area of research. Scientists are studying possible genetic predispositions for certain pain conditions, which could help clinicians provide more effective treatments for their patients, and take the guesswork out of finding the right medications and dosages.

Dr. Benavent is excited to see what the future holds for chronic pain diagnosis and treatment. Despite the challenging and meticulous nature of her work, she feels a sense of fulfillment with each patient she treats. "Many of these patients have battled with pain for years. It is incredibly rewarding to be able to make a difference in their lives," concludes Dr. Benavent.


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