Ask the Dentist: How can post-traumatic stress disorder affect your mouth?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can cause jaw and mouth problems which can even lead to back pain, says Lucy Stock of Gentle Dental Care

Stress from PTSD can translate into clenched teeth and jaw pain.
Stress from PTSD can translate into clenched teeth and jaw pain.

NORTHERN Ireland has more than its fair share of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it can take its toll on more than just the mind.

A recent study on PTSD has found that the shock waves from a traumatic event can linger for years and end up with people experiencing more facial and mouth pain. Participants in the study felt a higher intensity of chronic pain, more depression, and more non-specific physical symptoms compared to the general population.

After a dangerous or scary event, it's normal for the body to click into its fight or flight mode, where adrenaline is pumped around the body to help a person get clear of the threat. After a while most people will recover naturally; however, with PTSD, people continue to feel stressed and frightened in normal non-dangerous situations. PTSD can even rear its head many years after the event.

It's typical for PTSD sufferers to have recurring distressing thoughts and flashbacks, feel emotionally numb, avoid situations and lose interest in previously enjoyable activities. So it's understandable that brain chemistry will alter over time.

When the brain is in a PTSD state people tend to grind their teeth more and sleep less. It's not just the direct physical action of the stress translating to more grinding and clenching, the brain changes how it processes the pain.

So the perception of pain alters and people end up enduring more pains and higher levels of pain.

Dentally, sufferers of PTSD may experience aches in their jaw joints, sore cheek muscles that can get worse during the day, and intense sometimes stabbing headaches.

The pains are not confined to the head - on occasion they radiate down the neck and strangely enough even all the way down to the base of the spine.

Since the brain is driving the pains in part, dental treatments are often combined with talking therapies to try and help calm the brain down and return it to a place of safety.

Often the grinding can be reduced by mouth splints, a variety of tooth treatments, deep breathing and there are also medications to relax tense facial muscles and improve sleep.