When Kate Faith was laid off in March at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, her stress levels skyrocketed. She worried about making ends meet as a single parent to her 1-year-old daughter and about her family and friends catching the virus. The 37-year-old’s sleep worsened, and the additional stress caused Faith’s longtime habit of grinding her teeth and clenching her jaw to intensify.
“I’ve been dealing with clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth on and off since college, but because I have a night guard, I usually just work through it,” said Faith, who lives in Philadelphia. “But in March, things just got so much worse. I never thought I would do so much damage to my teeth.”
Dentists around the country say they’ve seen a surge in excessive teeth grinding or clenching, known as bruxism, since the pandemic began. Chronic teeth grinding wears down enamel, the outermost protective layer of the tooth, resulting in tooth fractures, or even loss of teeth in serious cases. It also can cause muscles around the jaw to ache.
Many dentists attribute the recent surge in bruxism to increased stress, which has been linked to bruxism in a number of studies, though not as a direct cause.
The increase did not come as a surprise to Thomas Sollecito, chair of oral medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.
“I would be surprised if there wasn’t an increase,” he said. “The stress and distress of the world’s events will affect things like sleep and someone’s clenching and grinding. If we’re constantly under that duress, the frequency and intensity of clenching and grinding is just going to continue.”
The most common thing people might notice if they’re grinding or clenching their teeth excessively is a tension headache, which can feel like dull pain or pressure across the forehead or in the back of the head, Sollecito said. Specifically, the overuse of muscles that close the jaw can cause temporal headaches, which are felt in the temples on the side of the head.
“People may also notice more discomfort with normal activity,” Sollecito said. “They might feel pain even if with routine chewing because their muscles have undergone more ‘exercise’ by clenching and grinding.”
Faith eventually scheduled a temporomandibular joint arthroscopy, a surgery that relieves pain and restores the jaw’s full range of motion.
“I feel better but my stressors haven’t really subsided yet,” Faith said. “I need to find a way to manage the stress, but I don’t know how to keep this from happening over and over at night until things are better.”