Ask the Dentist: Teeth are bearing the brunt of the pandemic's stresses

Added anxiety can cause us to grind our teeth, which can in turn lead to other health issues, writes Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care in Belfast

A recent study from Tel Aviv University showed a significant rise in symptoms from grinding disorders during this year's lockdowns
Lucy Stock

I'M IN touch with many dentists during the working week and, unprompted, they're saying to me that its remarkable that so many patients are coming over the door complaining about grinding problems.

Well, apparently this isn't a coincidence as a recent study from Tel Aviv University showed that during the first lockdown in both Israel and Poland there were significant rises – of between 15 per cent and 34 per cent – of symptoms from grinding disorders.

TMD, otherwise known as temporomandibular joint disorder, encompasses a range of troublesome matters such as grinding, clenching, jaw and tooth pain, joint popping, face and neck tenderness and teeth cracking.

The research found that people who already had TMD before the pandemic found its severity increased by about 15 per cent during lockdown, that jaw-clenching rose by 17-32 per cent, while tooth grating climbed by 10-36 per cent.

Rarely does someone grind continually – normally it comes in waves. Scientists have found that just before the tooth grinding starts, there's more brain activity accompanied by a rise in heart rate and release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This all points the finger of blame towards the nervous system having a role in grinding and clenching.

When under long-term stress and anxiety the adrenaline and cortisol taps in our body are stuck at on and so we have to endure uncomfortable fight-or-flight feelings like sweaty palms, fast heartbeat, dry mouth, feeling on edge and teeth grinding.

It's not surprising that when we grind our teeth the body thinks that we are about to eat and so pumps out more gastric juices into our stomach in anticipation of food. When this food doesn't come the acid just sits around, potentially causing ulcers or exacerbating existing ulcers. This could explain why chronically anxious people suffer more from stomach aches and pains.

There are different treatments from the dentist that can help reduce grinding, in the form of mouth guards and fixing the shapes of teeth for an optimally harmonised bite. However, it's equally important to address our inner wellbeing and release the stress in non-damaging ways like mindfulness, meditation, prayer, exercise and yoga.

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