You might get an earful the next time you visit your local dentist. After more than a year of cancelled appointments, closed clinics, and pandemic-related stress, dentists are bringing their patients back into the office, but they may not like what they find when they open their patients’ mouths.
A new survey from the American Dental Association (ADA) shows that the pandemic is taking a toll on our oral health in more ways than one.
Stress-Related Dental Conditions on the Rise
The ADA is made up of over 163,000 providers across the country. In a recent survey, 70% of respondents said they are seeing an increase in teeth grinding, also known as Bruxism, and clenching, both of which are often associated with stress. This marks a steep increase from the data released last fall that showed that just under 60% of dentists were seeing a rise in stress-related conditions.
Marko Vujicic, PhD, chief economist and vice president of the ADA Health Policy Institute, commented on the findings: “Our polling has served as a barometer for pandemic stress affecting patients and communities seen through the eyes of dentists. The increase over time suggests stress-related conditions have become substantially more prevalent since the onset of COVID-19.”
The survey also found that just over 60% of dentists saw an increase in other stress-related conditions, such as chipped and cracked teeth, jaw pain, headaches, and symptoms associated with TMD (temporomandibular joint disorder).
Despina Markogiannakis, who works at a private practice in Chevy Chase, MD, says she regularly warns her patients that all this extra grinding could lead to a root canal, dental implant, or night guard.
“These are people stuck at home all day and feeling lonely and feeling a little depression. It is induced by the world we live in and all the changes in our lives,” Markogiannakis said.
Marcelo Araujo, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., ADA chief science officer, added, “As the pandemic continues, dentists are seeing stress-related dental conditions more and more. It’s more important than ever for people to maintain their dental health, including seeing the dentist regularly to address any issues that could have long-term impact.”
Some reports have argued that constant mask-wearing can impede oral health, leading to a condition known as “mask mouth”, but the ADA study says otherwise. There was no meaningful change in the prevalence reported for conditions such as bad breath and dry mouth compared to pre-pandemic.
Dr. Mark Drangsholt, chair of the Department of Oral Medicine at the University of Washington’s School of Dentistry, said, “There’s effectively an epidemic of jaw muscle pain in the country right now because of COVID.”
And it’s having an effect on his practice.
“Every day now, I get texts, phone calls, emails, from physicians, dentists, and patients trying to get into our clinics,” he said. “It’s hard to know what it’s directly related to, but there does seem to be a relationship between stressors.”
Dr. Thomas Sollecito, a professor and chairman of the Department of Oral Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Dental Medicine School, says, “It’s the COVID stress that’s causing this bruxism. You either take it out on your teeth or you take it out on your jaw muscles.”
How to Stop Clenching and Grinding Your Teeth
Stress can take many different forms, such as excessive drinking, poor mental health, and binge eating, but teeth grinding and clenching often go unnoticed. Dentists say many of their patients don’t realize they’re chipping away at their teeth while they are awake or asleep.
If you’ve been especially hard on your teeth over the last few months, keep these tips in mind:
- Remember that your teeth shouldn’t be touching when you’re awake.
- If you notice you are grinding your teeth, consider using a mouth guard at night.
- If your jaw clenches up in stressful situations, such as at work or when dealing with the news of the day, remind yourself to relax your face and jaw muscles.
- Try exercising or doing some cardio after work or at the end of the day to get rid of excess tension.
Experts say overnight teeth grinding tends to be much worse than grinding while awake. That’s because “you can generate two to three times the maximal force you can during the day in the middle of the night,” Drangsholt said.
If you have a history of mild grinding, the pandemic is likely making it worse.
As Dr. Romesh Nalliah, associate dean for patient services at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, puts it, “It’s not that people suddenly start grinding their teeth when they’re stressed. It’s usually that they have an underlying habit that’s minor and then when they’re stressed it becomes more severe and it starts affecting their life in different ways.”
The ongoing pandemic has made life more difficult for pretty much everyone. Just make sure you’re not taking it out on your teeth.