When the world first came to a grinding halt due to COVID-19, we all believed we were facing a dangerous respiratory virus. COVID symptoms included deep coughs and shortness of breath and in many cases, infection led to pneumonia and lung issues.
But as the days turned to weeks, we soon realized that COVID has a more widespread impact on the body. COVID impacts not only the respiratory system, but also the gastrointestinal, neurological, vascular, and cardiac systems of the body.
And now, we’re seeing that it’s also impacting our teeth—both indirectly and directly. From teeth-grinding, to jaw clenching due to pandemic related stress, to delayed dental visits, and even scattered anecdotal reports of teeth falling out after an active COVID infection, our teeth are feeling the effects of a nearly year-long pandemic.
Scary Mommy corresponded with Dr. Leopoldo Correa, associate professor at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and director of the school’s Craniofacial Pain Center, about COVID’s impact on teeth, particularly with respect to grinding or clenching teeth, also known as bruxism.
Why Are We Grinding/Clenching Our Teeth More?
There are likely two reasons for the increase in grinding and clenching. The first is, unsurprisingly, stress. We’re all stressed. For nearly a year, we’ve been living with the cloud of a deadly pandemic hanging over us—all the while also navigating all the social, economic, and political turmoil this year has brought. Our bodies are in a constant state of “fight” mode and all that tension finds its way to our teeth at night, writes Dr. Tammy Chen, D.D.S. in an article for The New York Times.
A less obvious reason to explain all the grinding and clenching happening is posture. “Poor posture during the day can translate into a grinding problem at night,” writes Chen. With more people working from home at makeshift desks, there’s a higher chance that posture suffers, which leads to tension on the neck muscles and “increases the contact between the upper and lower teeth,” writes Dr. Correa.
Additionally, Dr. Correa notes that certain medications for anxiety or depression can increase muscle activity, including in the jaw area, and that may become more intense at night—leading to bruxism.
What Are The Consequences of Teeth Grinding or Clenching?
Grinding teeth or clenching your jaw can create facial pain, trouble opening your mouth, headache, neck pain, TMJ pain, and cracked teeth, filling or crowns. Dr. Correa reports seeing an increasing in the number of patients who need to replace a broken mouth guard. Likewise, at one point in the pandemic, his practice had a wait list of 200 individuals wanting appointments to manage disorders of the jaw muscles.
Long term consequences of bruxism include “fractures to teeth or dental restorations, or, in those who have chronic bruxism, the enamel that protects the teeth can wear down,” writes Dr. Correa. Additionally, long-term grinding/clenching can result in pain in the joints and the muscles we use for chewing and opening and closing our mouths.
How To Stop Grinding/Clenching At Night
The trouble with grinding or clenching your teeth at night is that often you don’t realize you’re doing it. Aside from addressing the underlying reasons for the teeth grinding and clenching, the preferred way to treat grinding/clenching at night is with a mouth guard, and ideally one that has been designed for your symptoms and your mouth. Dr. Correa notes that an over-the-counter mouth guard is an appropriate temporary solution to separate the teeth at night and provide a cushion.
Dr. Correa also suggests trying exercises for the jaw and muscles. He suggests a facial massage, by keeping your teeth apart, and using your knuckles to massage each side of your face by pushing down. Spending just five to ten minutes in the morning, afternoon, and evening will likely help. Another option that’s particularly useful if you find yourself clenching your teeth during the day is to keep the teeth apart and place the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth.
Some Long Haulers Are Experiencing Tooth Loss
Much is still unknown about how and why COVID impacts tooth loss, or even if it does at all. Tooth loss among long-haulers, folks who are still experiencing COVID symptoms weeks and months after their initial infection, is largely anecdotal, but the stories are enough to encourage experts to pay attention.
Dr. William W. Li, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, a nonprofit that studies the health and disease of blood vessels, noted in a New York Times article that doctors and experts are beginning to look at the strange symptoms long-haulers are experiencing, including issues related to tooth loss. As with all of the strange symptoms and consequences of COVID, time will tell.
Dentists Offices Are Safe
Whatever dental issue you may be experiencing—grinding, clenching, or otherwise—it’s important not to skip your dentist appointment. “Oral health is an important part of your general health,” writes Dr. Correa, who recommends contacting your family dentist to discuss any concerns you may have. He assures us that dentists are well-versed in infection control, and dental offices across the country have all implemented new protocols to keep the patient and the personnel safe.
In many ways, COVID-19 has changed almost every aspect of our lives—from the way we work, school, and socialize to the way we sit and sleep—and there’s little we can do about most of those changes until the pandemic has receded. But when it comes to our teeth, we can take action now to protect them, and get a little relief.