COVID-19 and its effects have topped headlines for months now, but one fallout of the pandemic may have slipped under your radar. Dentists have seen a sharp increase in teeth grinding and other tooth problems since the pandemic began, according to the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute.
Dentists surveyed by the ADA report that, compared with before the pandemic, they’ve seen a 59.4% increase in cases of teeth grinding and clenching. Temporomandibular joint disorder — or TMJ, which affects the joint that connects your lower jaw with the base of your skull — and chipped and cracked teeth are also up more than 50%. Those are likely associated with clenched jaws and grinding teeth.
To be clear, the increase in teeth grinding was not directly attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Dr. Matt Messina, clinic director of Ohio State Upper Arlington Dentistry, interim director of the Dental Oncology Clinic and assistant professor in the College of Dentistry’s restorative and prosthetic dentistry department. However, “it does demonstrate the signs of increased stress in the population.”
The body responds to threats by releasing hormones to increase the energy it needs to fight or flee from the danger, Messina says. “Stress activates the same hormonal response, but there is nothing directly to fight, so there is excess energy that the body needs to release. Clenching and grinding is a form of isometric muscle contraction which gives the body an outlet for that energy,” says Messina, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association.
Teeth grinding can become a destructive habit that can damage teeth, fillings and bone support for the teeth, he adds.
Teeth grinding often occurs unconsciously at night while you sleep, but can also occur during the day. It can be caused not only by stress and anxiety, but also by sleep disorders, as well as teeth that are crooked and misaligned, says Dr. Ada Cooper, a dentist in New York City and a spokesperson for the American Dental Association.
Symptoms of teeth grinding can include:
— Neck pain.
— Ear pain.
— Jaw pain, soreness and stiffness.
— Painful or sensitive teeth.
— Pain while you chew.
— Popping, clicking or grinding noises when moving the mouth and jaw.
— Cracking or chipping of teeth or fillings.
— Loose teeth or pain on biting.
Grinding your teeth can also cause serious damage, by causing teeth to become loose, worn and even fractured, Cooper says. “But often tooth grinding causes no symptoms at all, even while severely damaging your teeth. And some of these same symptoms can be caused by other conditions, like sinus problems, injury, infections, arthritis and problems with your jaw or the temporomandibular joint.”
If you experience any of these symptoms, or suspect you’re grinding your teeth, it’s important to see a dentist. “Your dentist will conduct a thorough exam and may take X-rays to determine whether the ligaments that attach your teeth to your jaw are inflamed and enlarged,” Cooper says. Your dentist “may also note tooth fractures and wear facets on the chewing surfaces of your teeth.”
Treatments are determined after a thorough examination and diagnosis. “For simpler cases, stress reduction, jaw exercises and relaxation techniques may do the trick. For more involved cases, an appliance, that is often worn at night, both covers and protects the teeth and allows the dentist to redirect chewing and grinding forces to create a more stable and balanced bite,” Messina says. Your dentist or physician also may recommend taking a muscle relaxant or anti-inflammatory drugs for short-term pain relief.
In some cases, other health professionals, such as physical therapists, sleep medicine specialists and psychologists for stress counseling, may be recommended. “Your dentist will help lead the treatment based upon the diagnosis and progress of care as we work toward health,” Messina says.
Self-care is also important. Meditation and exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety that can lead to grinding. “One of the best ways to relieve stress is physical activity. That’s what your body is craving,” Messina says. “Walking, running, biking and yoga are all excellent ways to release the excess energy in a positive direction.”
[Read: Meditation for Pain Relief.]
When Children Grind Teeth
Teeth grinding is also common in children. “However, because their teeth and jaws change and grow so quickly, it is not usually a damaging habit that requires treatment and most outgrow it,” Cooper says. While teeth grinding is often the result of stress in adults, the same is not always true with children. Other possible causes of teeth grinding in children include irritation in the mouth, allergies and misaligned teeth, she says. It is important to have children evaluated by a dentist if you are concerned about any dental issues with your child.
Whether you are a child or an adult, teeth grinding or clenching is not normal and can have significant adverse effects. “If you have any questions or concerns, contact your dentist to have it examined,” Messina advises. “This is treatable, and the earlier we work with someone, often the easier and less involved treatments can be.”
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