Introduction Data published in 1999 from the Government Actuary on the National Health Service Pension Scheme (1989-1994) have indicated that the frequency of ill health premature retirement (IHR) was four times more prevalent among dentists at age 42 years compared with doctors. Objective The aim of this project was to determine the factors that contributed to IHR in dental practitioners, and the effects of IHR on their lives. Method Semi-structured interviews were carried out during 2007. A topic list was developed, piloted and used to guide the interviewer. A purposive sampling technique was used to recruit the respondents from an insurance company database. A framework approach to data analysis was utilised. Results Twenty-three respondents were interviewed, 19 male and 4 female, aged between 39-59 years. Depression, stress and anxiety were reported by respondents to be major causes of their retirement, followed by musculoskeletal disease and premature disability caused by trauma. This is illustrated by the following: '...just went straight into general practice but with some regrets. Practice was so depressing' (GDS/NHS); 'I withdraw, I don't engage ... I found it more and more difficult and one morning... I collapsed in tears at the practice' (GDS/NHS). Dentists reported both negative and positive comments in relation to support received from their health insurance company. Conclusions The main causes of IHR were depression, musculoskeletal disease and specific skin conditions. Respondents expressed concern regarding the level of support available to dentists in distress. Respondents to this study found that continuing to work had a positive impact on their health.