As pandemic-related stress continues to increase, you may try to cope the old-fashioned way: Grit your teeth and bear it.
Please don’t. At least not literally.
While courage and determination are to be applauded, don’t let your teeth bear the brunt of your anxieties. Clenching and grinding can do serious damage to your pearly whites and cause plenty of other health conditions.
Let’s check the causes and consequences of clenching and grinding and explore better ways to manage stress.
B is for Bruxism
The clinical term for teeth grinding and jaw clenching is bruxism. It is often associated with nervous tension and worries, although it may also be caused by an abnormal bite, missing or crooked teeth or a sleep disorder. Contrary to popular belief, grinding and clenching doesn’t only occur at night when the person is asleep and not aware he or she is doing it.
Check yourself right now. Is your mouth relaxed, lips slightly apart, jaws soft? Or is your tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth, your jaws tight? There, you’re clenching. Are you feeling anxious?
You are not alone. These are stressful times.
More than 70% of dentists surveyed in March reported an increase of patients experiencing teeth grinding and clenching, according to the American Dental Association. That was a surge of 16% compared to the same survey taken six months earlier. The increase over time suggests a rise of stress-related conditions since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Given the third wave of COVID-19 this summer, our angst has probably risen even more. Let’s not add chronic headaches or broken teeth to the list.
Short- and Long-Term Effects
Teeth grinding and clenching can lead to a number of different health concerns, some more severe than others. Talk to your dentist if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- headaches in the temples
- sore jaws or cheekbones
- general facial discomfort
- pain similar to an earache
- increased tooth sensitivity
- damaged or bleeding tissue in your mouth
- tooth aches when eating hard foods
- sleep disruption
- a locked jaw that won’t open or close completely (TMJ)
Your dentist may also diagnose:
- Tooth decay
- Softened, “pitted” tooth enamel
- Receding gum lines
- Damaged teeth, i.e., flattened, cracked, chipped or loose teeth
Bruxism is not to be taken lightly. The actress Demi Moore in 2017 revealed that she had lost her two front teeth due to stress. “Thank God for modern dentistry,” she quipped in a television interview at the time.
And thank God for steps you can take now to prevent such a terrifying outcome.
Your dentist may fit you with a mouth guard to protect your teeth against the damage from grinding and sleeping. You may also ask your doctor for muscle relaxants. However, the device and the medications only treat the symptoms.
You’ll want to learn how to go easy on your teeth both while asleep at night and busy during the day and to manage your stress overall.
Try these tips right away:
- Position the tip of your tongue lightly between your teeth. Or rest a warm washcloth against your cheeks at bedtime. Both techniques will train your jaws to relax.
- Don’t chew on pens or pencils, gum, fingernails or anything that is not food. Stop crunching ice. These habits prompt your jaws to get more used to clenching and make you more likely to grind your teeth.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol tends to intensify grinding.
- Cut down on coffee, chocolate and sodas, especially late in the day. Foods and beverages that contain caffeine amp up your nervous system, making you more jittery and stressed.
- Avoid hard, crunchy foods.
- If you’re experiencing a flare of tight jaws or sensitivity, switch to soft foods and limit anything that moves the jaw, such as chewing and even talking.
For long-term, effective stress management, you may want to incorporate some lifestyle changes. Consider:
- attending stress counseling
- starting an exercise program, which can be as simple as after-dinner walks through your neighborhood
- learning mediation techniques or mindful breathing
- working with a physical therapist.
Ask your dentist for more advice on how to keep your teeth in the best possible shape even in the worst of times.
Since 1982, Delta Dental of Arkansas has served its members with an uncompromised mission: to advance the public’s oral health by offering quality dental benefits and superior service to all customers at an affordable cost. Delta Dental of Arkansas also supports more than $1 million annually to programs designed to improve oral health in Arkansas through dental education, prevention and treatment.