COVID Pandemic Stress May Strain Your Dental Health

All the way back at the beginning of the pandemic, when we thought it would be over in a few short months (ah, those naïve old days), we warned about the possible problems COVID stress may cause for your dental health. Call us psychic, but our predictions are unfortunately coming true. Dentists all over the world are reporting sharp increases in dental health issues caused by COVID pandemic stress.

Long Term Pandemic Stress Can Cause Dental Health Issues

We saw this problem coming from the beginning of the pandemic. Dentists frequently see an uptick in dental pain and stress-related dental health problems any time things get tough for people, whether personally or on a global scale. A recent poll by the ADA confirmed our predictions: dentists are seeing more stress-induced dental problems these past two years. What gives?

Carrying Stress in Our Jaws

Most of us clench our jaw or grind our teeth when we’re stressed. It’s called a parafunctional habit; a behavior we do outside of the normal function of our teeth and jaw. Clenching and grinding can cause pain, discomfort, and even damage to the teeth and the jaw joints.

Our jaw muscles can exert a ton of pressure, which is great when you’re munching something crunchy or gnawing on a piece of steak. However, when there is nothing to cushion against that pressure, it all goes straight to your teeth. All that added strain on your teeth, especially the molars, can damage the enamel, nerves, and ligaments that support your teeth.

These past two years, dentists have seen a huge surge in cracked and fractured teeth. This is a common side-effect of chronic grinding and clenching habits. Over time, that extra pressure can cause tiny hairline fractures in the teeth to deepen and grow, sometimes to catastrophic effect. Even if the damage is minimal, grinding can also cause teeth to chip and wear away little by little. Over time, many patients lose a significant amount of enamel this way.

Beyond damage to the teeth, however, grinding and clenching can also lead to jaw problems. Jaw tension can cause headaches, ranging from mild tension headaches to severe migraines. Over time, grinding and clenching may also wear on the jaw joint itself, causing damage to the cartilage pad inside the joint, or even wearing on the bone itself. Temporomandibular joint disorder, commonly referred to as TMJ or TMJD, is just one of the many ways COVID stress has impacted man of our patients.

Working from Home May Mean More Snacking!

As if all that grinding and clenching damage weren’t bad enough, there is another aspect of the pandemic that may be hurting your teeth. Many of us have transitioned to working from home. Which can be a great thing in many ways! After all, Monday morning doesn’t hit quite the same when you can commute to the living room without changing out of your PJs.

However, working from home also means more snacking. With easy access to the fridge and no one to shame you for crunching your Doritos too loud, there doesn’t seem like much reason to avoid all-day grazing.

Constant exposure to starches and sugars throughout the day leads to increased risk for cavities. Every time we eat, especially if it’s something sweet or acidic, the pH in our mouth drops. That acidity lasts for about 20 minutes after eating before our mouth can recover its neutral balance. During that time, acid works against our enamel, causing it to weaken.

If we snack all day, our mouth never has a chance to recover between acid exposure times! So sipping on that sweet Starbucks frap or eating just a few chips at a time over the course of hours may not seem like overdoing it, but it puts our teeth at serious risk for decay.

A Silver Lining to Pandemic Stress?

Is it all bad news? Maybe not!

One possible silver lining to all of this COVID mess is that many of us have been made aware of exactly what our breath smells like. For many of us, the pandemic may have been the first time we wore a face mask. Having our breath held right over our noses, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, let us know exactly what everyone else could smell when we got too close.

For many patients, that awareness has actually led to improved home care habits! In an effort to save ourselves from the scourge of mask breath, many of us have been brushing more carefully and flossing more often. It may seem like a small consolation, but we’ll take it!

If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon, it’s never too late! Especially if you work from home, take a few extra minutes each day to floss and brush thoroughly. It will not only improve your breath, but also help counteract that bad snacking habit we talked about!

Coping With Stress-Related Discomfort

If you’re struggling with headaches, sore or stiff jaws, and sensitive or achy teeth, you’re not alone. The good news is, there are steps you can take to help relieve some of that pain!

Massage Your Pain Away

Massage goes a long way to help relieve tense and sore jaw muscles. If you find yourself grinding or clenching, or just feel like your jaws are tighter than usual, visit our previous post about massage techniques to relieve TMJ pain.

If you’re able to tolerate it, ibuprofen can also be helpful for grinding-related pain. For acute flare ups, we also recommend warm compresses. Just put a damp washcloth in the microwave for a few seconds until it feels warm and hold it on your chewing muscles. Make sure to test that it’s not too hot first! You can also eat a soft diet for a few days to allow the muscle to rest.

Consider Wearing a Guard

If you find that you’re grinding or clenching over a prolonged period (like many of us), ask your dental team about a guard! A custom guard not only helps relieve jaw pain but prevents damage to your teeth as well. It’s a great investment to help you avoid expensive dentistry down the road.

However, we do not recommend over the counter guard options, as they tend to be made of slightly flexible material, which can actually make grinding habits worse.

We’re Here for You!

No matter how COVID pandemic stress has affected your dental health, we are here for you! We hope you won’t find yourself in an emergency situation with a broken tooth, but if you do we’re just a phone call away. Next time you’re in for a routine dental health check, be sure to let us know if you have been struggling with jaw problems or headaches. We may have just the thing to help!

As always, we are proud to have kept our patients so safe throughout this difficult time. If you’ve been hesitant to come for your regular cleanings, remember that putting them off may cost your teeth in the long run, and we have had great success in preventing COVID exposure for both patients and team members here at Lake Baldwin Dental. Keep smiling and relax those jaws, Orlando!

covid stress oral health