Teeth grinding and other dental damage is increasing during the pandemic

New data from dentists around the country indicates a spike in dental conditions like grinding, chipped or cracked teeth, and cavities.
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New data from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute indicates that there has been an rise in stress-related dental conditions, like tooth grinding and cracking, during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the data, which was collected by the ADA Health Policy Institute via a survey sent to thousands of U.S. dentists, responding dentists have seen cases of tooth grinding and clenching rise by 59.4%, with instances of both cracked and chipped teeth rising by 53.4% each. There has also been an increase in cavities, gum disease, and symptoms of temporomandibular joint dysfunction.

Data from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute shows a spike in multiple tooth conditions. Courtesy of the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute

Dr. Matthew Messina, the dental clinic director at The Ohio State Upper Arlington Dentistry, said that while dentists had anecdotal stories about an increase in tooth troubles during the pandemic, having the survey data allows them to get a better sense of what's going on around the country.

"We can't say 'Because of coronavirus, we're having clenching and grinding,' but we've seen a nationwide increase in patients expressing concern about clenching and grinding and damage that they're seeing in their teeth," he said. "It's not just one or two offices experiencing this; we're starting to see a broad base of lots of (dentists) seeing the same thing."

Messina said that in his practice, he has personally seen an increase in patients coming in and expressing concerns about grinding or clenching; he and his staff have been making more bite guard appliances as well, which help prevent night grinding.

If you are experiencing symptoms like muscle aches and pains, headaches or discomfort in your teeth and mouth, be sure to contact your dentist to schedule an appointment. In most cases, it's safe to visit your dentist during the pandemic, and it's important to check out any conditions before they escalate.

"This is something we can do something about," Messina said. "It's OK. You're not being a whiner, you know this is a real thing, and it isn't something you should just ignore. Talk to your dentist about it."

While the increase in grinding and other tooth problems can't be directly attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, Messina said it does seem to be a sign of increased stress in the population.

"Your body responds to stress with hormone releases and the release of energy, so the body has all this excess energy that it needs something to do with," he said. "Your body wants to use that excess energy for muscle activity ... Clenching and grinding your teeth is a form of isometric contraction, which gives us an outlet for that energy."

Other symptoms to look out for include popping, clicking or grinding noises when moving the mouth and jaw, which can be a sign of temporomandibular joint dysfunction disorders, which affect the jaw joint and surrounding muscles. Tightness or pain in that area can also be a sign of joint dysfunction. Tooth sensitivity and soreness can be a sign of cavities, which have also increased during the pandemic, according to the data.

If you are having issues with tooth clenching or grinding, Messina said that dental care providers can also talk to their patents about different strategies to reduce stress and relax their jaw muscles.

"There are simple things we can do," he said. "We can talk to the patient about relaxation exercises and jaw muscles exercises, all different things to try and break the cycle of stress. If you're further down the path, we may need to use appliances like bite guards that help protect the teeth and redirect forms and allow the muscles to relax."

Messina also said that regardless of tooth pain or other harmful conditions, it's important to continue taking care of your teeth to avoid any problems developing down the road.

"We've seen some people have kind of slacked off a little bit on their oral health care (during the pandemic) and so certainly that begs a gentle reminder that the bacteria in your mouth don't know it's a pandemic," he said. "it's important for us to continue brushing really well, twice a day, flossing between your teeth, eating a healthy diet, and seeing your dentist regularly."