The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn has been stressful for everyone. This stress can manifest itself physically, and affect our bodies and health in many ways. After months of climbing case numbers, lock-downs, and uncertainty, the resulting stress is now showing up in one perhaps unexpected area: our teeth.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, dentists have begun seeing more and more patients with cracked teeth, and they believe stress is the culprit.
Since her Manhattan dental practice re-opened for “business as usual”, Tammy Chen has been busier than ever. The reason? Tooth fractures.
“I’ve seen more tooth fractures in the last six weeks than in the previous six years,” she said .
Even in mid-march, when Dr. Chen was forced to close her practice to only emergencies, she immediately had an increase in phone calls from patients suffering from jaw pain, tooth sensitivity, achiness in the cheeks, and migraines. She had to treat most of these patients through telemedicine.
Since reopening her practice in early June, Dr. Chen has seen at least one patient with a tooth fracture every single day. On average, she sees three or four in a day, on the worst days she sees six or more.
Why is this Happening?
Dr. Chen believes the reason she’s seeing so many tooth fractures is because of stress.
“From Covid-induced nightmares to “doomsurfing” to “coronaphobia,” it’s no secret that pandemic-related anxiety is affecting our collective mental health” she said .
This stress is causing people to clench their jaws and grind their teeth. This is also referred to as bruxism. It does not always cause symptoms, but some people can experience facial pain and headaches, and it can wear down your teeth over time. The problem is that most people don’t realize that they’re grinding their teeth until there’s a problem .
More specifically, she believes that the sudden increase in people working from home, and a chronic lack of restorative sleep, are contributing to the number of tooth fractures.
Why is working from home a problem? Because most people are working from make-shift home offices, the ergonomics of their new workspace is likely not as good as at the office. Many people are working from on the sofa, on a barstool at the kitchen counter, or even on the bed. This often results in poor posture.
Why is this a problem? Because poor posture during the day can lead to teeth grinding at night.
Poor posture also places your head in a forward position, which places tension on the muscles attached to the jaw. This creates an imbalance in the muscles around the jaw, which can cause you to clench and grind your teeth .
The second factor Dr. Chen believes is contributing to the increase in tooth fractures is lack of sleep.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve listened to patient after patient describe sudden restlessness and insomnia,” she said .
She explains that these are classic symptoms of an overactive sympathetic nervous system. This is what drives the body’s “fight or flight” response, which puts your body under stress. When you are stuck in this state constantly, you carry tension in your jaw and clench your teeth.
How to Prevent Grinding
Dr. Chen says the first step to preventing teeth grinding is awareness: many people do not realize that they grind their teeth. One sign that you might be grinding your teeth is if your teeth are touching each other right now.
According to Chen, your teeth should never be touching unless you’re chewing food.
“Instead, your jaw should be relaxed, with a bit of space between the teeth when the lips are closed,” explains Dr. Chen. “Be mindful, and try to stop yourself from grinding when you catch yourself doing it.” 
She suggests using a night guard or retainer if you have one. This will keep your teeth in proper alignment and prevent grinding. You can have your dentist make a custom mouth guard for you so that it fits properly, which you can even wear during the day if you need it.
Dr. Chen also emphasises the importance of having a proper working space if you are working from home.
“Ideally, when seated, your shoulders should be over your hips, and your ears should be over your shoulders,” she says. “Computer screens should be at eye level; prop up your monitor or laptop on a box or a stack of books if you don’t have an adjustable chair or desk.” 
She says that you should move around as much as possible during the day, and if you can, create a standing desk so you can get up during the day.
Chen also recommends to all her patients “wiggle like a fish” at the end of the day.
“Lie down on the floor on your back, with your arms extended straight above your head, and gently wiggle your arms, shoulders, hips and feet from side to side.” 
The goal of this is to decompress and elongate the spine, and release any built-up tension or pressure. A twenty minute epsom salt bath can also be a great way to relax before bed and relieve stress.
Finally, Dr. Chen recommends that right before bed, you take five minutes to quiet your mind. She says to close your eyes, press your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and breath in and out through your nose. This stimulates the vagus nerve, which controls the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest system).
The more relaxed you can be before bed, the less likely you will be to grind your teeth at night.
“Teeth are naturally brittle, and everyone has tiny fissures in their teeth from chewing, grinding and everyday use,” explained Chen. “They can take only so much trauma before they eventually break.” 
Last but not least, Chen emphasises the importance of paying a regular visit to the dentist. This means going to get your teeth checked and cleaned every six months, so you can catch any potential problems early.
If that is not possible, then get yourself a mouth guard. It could prevent an emergency dental appointment.
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