Pandemic causes increase in stress-related dental problems

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Cleveland, Ohio (WJW) – A lot has changed at the dentist’s office since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Many offices were forced to shut down in the early weeks of the pandemic to save valuable personal protective equipment and prevent any spread of the virus.

But dentists have been back open for months now and many are noticing a trend: more jaw pain, more tooth pain and more dental emergencies.

“We get phone calls every day from our patients who have toothaches, cracked teeth and fractured teeth,” explains Dr. Tony Lu with Downtown Dental Services in Cleveland.

Dr. Lu says he has never seen so many emergencies in his office in his entire career. Prior to the pandemic they would typically see one or two calls a week for a cracked tooth, tooth ache or unexplained pain.

“When we do the examination we notice that a lot of people are grinding their teeth and clenching the teeth in general, which can cause fractured teeth and chipped teeth and also people have headaches and tense muscles when they wake up in the morning,” Lu said.

The American Dental Association is tracking this new trend and a majority of dentists across the country are reporting seeing grinding, clenching in general tooth pain at least half of their patients.

“Dentists have known for a long time that our mouth, oral health, is related to our whole body,” Lu said, explaining stress from the ongoing pandemic is likely a factor behind the high number of dental emergencies.

“This pandemic just reminded us our mouths and the brain and the body are really closely connected. During the pandemic people are consciously and subconsciously effected. You know people have stress, anxiety and uncertainty and it causes really complicated effects on the neurological and muscular functions of the body and that can translate to tooth problems,” Lu said.

Lu says some patients are aware their stress is playing a role in overnight grinding of the teeth or jaw clenching. But others, he says, don’t realize it until they come into the office with a problem.

Kaori Evans of Macedonia is one of Dr. Lu’s patients. He says her story is a classic example of a likely stress-induced tooth problem.

“Sometimes with the stress, you know, what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with the changes in your life with the pandemic you know maybe the stress is causing you to crunch your teeth while you are sleeping,” Evans said.

Evans’ problem started with a mild pain in a tooth she had work done on years ago. But the pain steadily got worse until she couldn’t sleep through the night. She had an infection and a fracture in the root of a tooth.

“I thought I was fine,” she said. “I didn’t really think what I was affected with what’s going on but I guess your body kind of reacts to that without you thinking or noticing,” Evans continued.

Jessica Zerick has worked as a dental hygienist for 15 years. In her experience she’s seen the whole spectrum of tooth issues and problems. But now she sees at least one patient everyday who has an emergency or unexplained tooth and jaw pain.

“When all that force is put on people’s teeth, the teeth start breaking, the teeth start getting worn down,” she explained.

Outside of the pain many people are experiencing there’s potential for long-term damage.

“You’re more susceptible to that facture, your more susceptible to cavities and definitely with the stress that puts on your jaw joint, so a lot of pain around your TMJ joint,” Zerick explains.

Lu is also encouraging people not to skip or postpone their regular cleanings and checkups over the fear of getting Covid-19 at the dentist’s. Dental offices have very strict sanitization practices and many, like Lu, have put extra precautions in place.

Downtown Dental checks patients’ temperatures, they installed air purification systems, employees wear full PPE and patients must use a hydrogen peroxide rinse at the start of their appointment. They have even treated the water used at the office.

Despite all of these measures to protect people, some patients are still hesitant to go to the dentist.

Barron Witherspoon, a second year law student in Cleveland, avoided going to the dentist when he had a mild toothache. After the pain got so bad he made an appointment at Downtown Dental Services and learned he needed to get a root canal and had an infection.

“I don’t want someone digging around in my mouth during a pandemic but it had to happen and I think that Downtown Dental took every precaution they could,” Witherspoon said.

If you are feeling jaw, tooth or other mouth pain experts advise you to call a dentist as soon as possible. A mouthguard could help to prevent grinding and pressure on the jaw overnight and a dentist could prescribe medicine if they believe it is necessary.

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