How tight does your jaw feel right now?
If you feel tension, pain or are simply pressing your teeth together as you read this, you’re likely one of many to be impacted by a reported spike in cases of ‘bruxism’ – the condition of teeth clenching, or jaw grinding – since the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the globe early this year.
Around half of Aussie adults are estimated to grind their teeth occasionally, while 5% of the population are habitual, or problematic teeth grinders, but dentists are noticing a major spike in the potentially devastating condition among Aussies.
While the pandemic has had a multitude of health fallouts, from the physical toll on sufferers to the mental stress of millions isolating in a bid to stop the spread, what many may not realise is that for many the psychological impacts of the virus can be seen in their teeth.
Dentists says jaw-clenching on rise under lockdown
Dr Rick Iskander is a Sydney dentist who says he has seen ‘significantly more’ cases of bruxism since the first lockdown period in March of this year.
“Bruxism is mediated by a lot of things but one of the primary contributing factors is psychological stress,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s a disease where patients will clench and grind their teeth and put tension into the muscles of mastication.”
The muscles of mastication are the muscles used to move the jaw, and are found around the jaw and head, also in the temple.
He says he has no doubt that the virus has played a primary role in the increase he is noticing.
“There are some genetic facts but so much of it is stress-induced,” he says, adding the amount of time people are ‘on’ – working or simply engaging with screens – is something he feels sure is playing a part.
“Now working from home, patients tell me their days blur into nights. They don’t get things done during the day so they have to work into the evenings and nighttime and their sleep is thrown off,” he says. “All of that contributes significantly to this.”
“From 2019 over to 2020 there's been a [major] increase in the patients I’m treating for this.”
Other dentists report a similar spike in cases since the lockdown began.
The Chair of the Australian Dental Association’s Oral Health Committee Dr Michael Foley tells Yahoo Lifestyle that given the well-documented link between anxiety and bruxism an increase in cases is to be expected.
“COVID-19 is very stressful for many people, so I would expect an increase in a whole range of signs and symptoms associated with anxiety, including bruxism,” Dr Foley said in a statement.
“There is almost certainly an association between anxiety and bruxism, although the extent can depend on how both are measured.”
A 2020 report published in the Journal of Applied Oral Science unequivocally stated that the virus is likely to have ‘major impacts’ on oral health going forward, and in particular on cases of bruxism.
“It could be expected that psychological factors associated to pandemic may lead to a greater risk of developing, worsening and perpetuating bruxism,” the study reads.
How badly will teeth grinding impact your health?
So sure, maybe more of us our grinding our teeth, but is it that bad?
According to the professionals, it’s pretty shocking for your long term health and can be shattering in the short term – literally.
“We see [bruxism] on patient’s teeth in the form of teeth cracking, fillings falling out, teeth bending and actually losing a little bit of tooth structure,” Dr Rick says.
One patient he saw recently had to have two crowns replaced because the pressure of the grinding cracked through the porcelain.
The condition also creates tiny cracks in the teeth that can be a hotbed for bacteria, and almost impossible to keep clean, leading to serious issues and increased risk for disease down the track, not to mention a lot of pain for many sufferers.
“Teeth do not grow back at all,” Dr Rick points out. “And the main diseases we’re dealing with are gum disease and dental decay.”
Dr Rick has helpful online videos with tips for sufferers to relieve tension, and he says now more than ever it’s important to maintain our basic dental wellbeing, though a recent study by Life Education worryingly found people’s brushing habits are on a sharp decline since the pandemic hit.
Instead, everyone should be brushing twice a day, ideally opting for an electric toothbrush if one can afford it, though a manual toothbrush can be just as effective if used properly.
Dr Rick is a Philip’s spokesperson and recommends Philip’s Sonicare electric toothbrush for kids which retails for $70 and comes with an interactive app, though if the price seems too steep, other brands have electric options for prices as low as $35.
Screen time could have you gritting your teeth
The Sonicare toothbrush comes with an app for kids to engage with their teeth brushing, however screentime could be one of the things driving numbers of cases up in the first place.
Dr Rick believes increased time spent on screen, as lockdown turns social interactions into online interaction for many could be playing a part, though at this early stage there is limited research in the area.
“Anecdotally what I am seeing is the amount of stimulation from an LED backlit screen, and from notifications, it’s very very high impact,” he says.
It’s well known that notifications and interactions with screens prompt a dopamine release, leading to the potential for addiction to video games and social media, and limiting time on screens has been recommended by experts for years.
Dr Rick says he believes that too much time on screens leads to a build-up in stimulation without a matching physical release, meaning we express it through our mouth, a link Dr Foley says is ‘very plausible’.
“The dopamine hit screens let off stimulate us to do things and we’re not doing anything, we’re just sitting in front of a screen,” Dr Rick says. “So all that pent up anxiety, and need to do something will come out in some way or another, [generally as] muscle tension in some form [and] the easiest muscle to tense up is your jaw.”
This has not been proven among the general population, but those with screen addiction are well documented to show physiological symptoms including muscle tension as a result of dopamine hits without physical release.
In other words, switching off your screen could be as important as the flossing and the brushing we’ve had drilled into us for so long, particularly as life moves online for the duration of the lockdown.