A: Yes! Dentists are seeing an uptick in cracked and damaged teeth that might very well be pandemic-related. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about!
In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Tammy Chen, a Manhattan prosthodontist, explained how COVID-19 might lead to dental fractures. (Info here is excerpted and adapted from Dr. Chen’s article; link to full article below).
Dr. Chen reports seeing more tooth fractures in the last six weeks than in the previous six years. Other complaints: jaw pain, tooth sensitivity, achiness in the cheeks, migraines. When she reopened her practice in early June, the fractures started coming in: at least one a day, but averaging 3-4, and sometimes 6 or more!
What’s going on?
Ok, yes, stress. Pandemic-related anxiety is affecting our mental health. That stress, in turn, leads to clenching and grinding, which can damage the teeth.
But the surge Dr. Chen is seeing in tooth trauma may also be a result of two additional factors:
#1: An unprecedented number of Americans are suddenly working from home, and home “office” set-ups (by which we mean: on the sofa, perched on a barstool, tucked into a corner of the kitchen counter) aren’t the most ergonomic. Dr. Chen notes that the awkward body positions that result can cause hunched shoulders and a C-shaped spine.
What’s that got to do with your teeth? The nerves in your neck and shoulder muscles lead into the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, which connects the jawbone to the skull. Poor posture during the day can translate into a grinding problem at night.
#2: We’re not sleeping: Restlessness and insomnia are so common now, with few of us getting the restorative sleep we need. This leads to an overactive sympathetic nervous system, aka a permanent “fight or flight” response. The stress of coronavirus keeps us in a battle-ready state of arousal, instead of resting and recharging. Dr Chen says, “All that tension goes straight to the teeth.”
What’s to be done?
#1. Cultivate awareness. Dr. Chen reports that few patients even realize they are grinding away. Check in with your mouth: Are your teeth currently touching? If so, you’re doing some damage. In her article. Dr. Chen advises, “Your teeth shouldn’t actually touch throughout the day at all unless you’re actively eating and chewing your food. Instead, your jaw should be relaxed, with a bit of space between the teeth when the lips are closed. Be mindful, and try to stop yourself from grinding when you catch yourself doing it.”
#2. Already have a night guard, retainer, or other device? Pop it in during the day. As Dr. Chen says, “I’d much rather you crack a night guard than crack a tooth.” Ask your dentist for a custom night guard if you don’t have one.
#3. Fix that work station! Follow these ergonomic basics: When seated, shoulders should be over your hips , ears should be over your shoulders. Computer screens should be at eye level; use a stack of books or whatever else you have lying around to get it to the right height.
#4. Move! It’s tempting during prolonged WFH stints to wake up, park it at your work station, and not move for 8 more hours. Set an alarm to remind yourself to stand, walk, dance, or whatever it takes to get more movement into your day. Here’s Dr. Chen’s suggestion: “At the end of the workday, I advise my patients to — excuse the very technical, medical term here — ‘wiggle like a fish.’ Lie down on the floor on your back, with your arms extended straight above your head, and gently wiggle your arms, shoulders, hips and feet from side to side. The goal is to decompress and elongate the spine, as well as release and relieve some of that tension and pressure.”
#5. Try a bath-and-breathe bedtime ritual: A 20-minute soak (Dr. Chen recommends Epsom salts), and some quiet time to breathe. Help your body move from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” mode: slowed heart rate, lowered blood pressure –> more restful, restorative sleep. Dr Chen says, “The more relaxed your body, the more likely you are to wake up with less tension in the jaw. That means less grinding at night.”