Everyone’s Stressed Out, and It’s a Real Pain in the…Mouth
We learned a lot during the past two years of dealing with a pandemic. For many people, one of those things was the word “bruxism.” Dentists around the country have witnessed a surge in excessive teeth grinding or clenching, technically called bruxism since the pandemic began. In 2022, however, the situation appears to have worsened, with a majority of Americans reporting high-stress levels due to financial concerns, inflation, the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 variants, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a new poll from the American Psychological Association. Of course, all of that has also created a spike in chronic teeth grinding, which wears down the protective layer of enamel on the tooth and leads to fractures, jaw pain, facial discomfort, and even loss of teeth in severe cases.
Grinding Is Our New Grind
“Many dentists attribute the recent surge in bruxism to increased stress, which has been linked to bruxism in a number of studies, though not as a direct cause,” wrote MedicalXPress, citing an article by Bethany Ao in The Philadelphia Inquirer, which illustrated the oral health concerns of bruxism.
Ao interviewed Thomas Sollecito, chair of oral medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, who was not surprised by the increase in stress-related teeth grinding.
“I would be surprised if there wasn’t an increase,” he said. “The stress and distress of the world’s events will affect things like sleep and someone’s clenching and grinding. If we’re constantly under that duress, the frequency and intensity of clenching and grinding are just going to continue.”
Prior to the global outbreak of COVID-19, 50% of adults exhibited some form of grinding and muscle contractions in their jaws. Those statistics have continued to soar, even as the worst aspects of the pandemic fall behind us. “The top sources of stress were the rise in prices for everyday items due to inflation – namely gas prices, energy bills, and grocery costs – followed by supply chain issues and global uncertainty,” Carolyn Crist wrote in a recent article for WebMD. “About 87% of respondents said inflation was a significant source of stress, followed by 81% for supply chain issues and 81% for global uncertainty. In addition, 80% said they were stressed about potential retaliation from Russia through cyberattacks or nuclear threats, and 80% cited overall concerns about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Despite the lack of a definitive connection between stress and chronic teeth grinding, researchers have demonstrated strong links between bruxism and emotions such as anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, or tension. Yet as the Mayo Clinic clarified, these are most often correlated with awake bruxism rather than sleep bruxism.
Bruxism Symptoms and Complications
As the Mayo Clinic states, in most cases, bruxism doesn’t cause serious complications. But it can produce complications that lead to discomfort or pain:
- Damage to your teeth, restorations, crowns, or jaw
- Tension-type headaches
- Severe facial or jaw pain
- Disorders that occur in the temporomandibular joints (TMJs), located just in front of your ears, which may sound like clicking when you open and close your mouth
The following signs and symptoms may indicate that you have bruxism:
- Teeth grinding or clenching, which may be loud enough to wake up your sleep partner
- Teeth that are flattened, fractured, chipped, or loose
- Worn tooth enamel, exposing deeper layers of your tooth
- Increased tooth pain or sensitivity
- Tired or tight jaw muscles, or a locked jaw that won’t open or close completely
- Jaw, neck, or face pain or soreness
- Pain that feels like an earache, though it’s actually not a problem with your ear
- Dull headache starting in the temples
- Damage from chewing on the inside of your cheek
- Sleep disruption
Special Circumstances for Those with Special Needs
During an interview with Dr. Lindzy Goodman, DDS, of House Call Dentists, hosted by Inspired Memory Care’s Nettie Harper and Kelly Gilligan, Dr. Goodman indicated that COVID-19 and other anxieties have exacerbated the problem of bruxism.
“We have never seen so many fractured teeth because of grinding and clenching,” Dr. Goodman said. “We’re continuing to see stress generated dental emergencies more than ever during this time. We cannot just close our doors to patients, and we must take extra steps to stay safe.”
For people in assisted living or similar care facilities, these challenges are far greater to surpass. Patients with dementia, for example, don’t necessarily understand that process or have the ability to sit through a traditional visit. House Call Dentists immediately eliminate the first barrier to care. More importantly, this approach affords a stronger, safer, and more comfortable relationship between special needs patients, their caregivers, and dentists.
House Call Dentists, operated by Blende Dental Group, has designed programs that introduce caregivers to new resources, train them on using tools such as cheek retractors and mouth supports, and provide ongoing guidance on preventative and palliative care options. Caregivers, whether the adult children of elderly patients or personnel employed by a facility, don’t actually have robust training in monitoring and administering oral care for patients with physical or cognitive disabilities. Education, therefore, remains an instrumental weapon in the fight for better oral health.
Focusing on Prevention
Dr. Goodman expressed that 90% of dental visits are preventable. The bad news is that many of us aren’t very good at it.
- Over 70% of American seniors have periodontal disease.
- Nearly 50% of adults over the age of 30 have periodontal disease.
- About 65% of working adults already put off essential visits to the dentist.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of good news, too.
- Simply brushing twice daily and flossing once a day are two critical behaviors that are proven to prevent the risk of all oral infections — and they require only a few minutes each day.
- Dry mouth is an oral health risk. Drinking water throughout the day, rather than coffee or sugary beverages, can dramatically curb dental problems.
- Since the pandemic, dental offices have implemented some of the highest sterilization and disease prevention measures in the nation’s businesses. So routine visits remain completely safe.
Of course, there remain people who can’t visit the dentist because of special needs, cognitive disorders, physical limitations, or other challenges. For those with special needs, the dentist can come to them. House Call Dentists teams specialize in safe, sterile, and comfortable care onsite at a patient’s home or assisted living facility.
The when and where are up to you.