By Julia M. Chambers
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, dentists are treating more dental emergencies than ever before. Dental professionals from across the United States have reported a dramatic increase in the number of cases they see for cracked and broken teeth, some with unusually severe damage.
Damage Reports Are Coast-to-Coast
According to Derek T. Peek, an endodontist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he saw fewer patients overall but treated twice as many patients with broken teeth in August of 2020 than he did in 2019.
In the New York Times, Dr. Tammy Chen wrote that she saw more tooth fractures at her Manhattan-based office in six weeks during the summer than in her previous six years in dental practice.
Dr. Galen Wagnild and his wife, Dr. Kathy Mueller, both prosthodontists practicing in San Francisco, share similar experiences, stating they’ve never seen anything quite like it before. According to Dr. Mueller, the patients coming in to see them have very unusual fractures, some involving healthy teeth split into half. To fracture your own healthy teeth in that way requires tremendous force.
ADA Reports an Increase in Stress-Related Oral Health Conditions
These dentists are not alone in noticing an uptick in stress-related dental issues. In a recent newsletter, the American Dental Association (ADA) reported it as a much broader, growing trend across the United States. The ADA Health Policy Institute’s COVID-19 impact poll revealed that “a majority of participating dentists have seen a rise in stress-related oral health conditions in their patients since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.” In particular, more than half of the dentists surveyed have seen a significant rise in bruxism, chipped and cracked teeth, and temporomandibular disorder (TMD) symptoms, all of which commonly have stress-related causes. More than a quarter of the dentists polled also reported an increase in dental caries and periodontal disease, but stress-related dental conditions saw the highest climb.
While the ADA poll doesn’t specifically prove that Americans are more stressed this year, it echoes evidence from other sources. The American Association for the Advancement of Science published a report describing the COVID-19 pandemic as a “collective stressor.” Multiple stressors triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, representing a collective trauma, were linked directly to a rise in depressive symptoms and acute stress.
Cracked Teeth, Headaches, and Jaw Pain – All Signs of Bruxism
Bruxism (aka teeth grinding) leads to muscle pain and tooth damage. Tension and stress are known causes behind bruxism, which happens when patients clench their jaws or grit their teeth. According to the California Dental Association, teeth grinding is more common in adult patients who live under emotional tension.
Bruxism is a common enough concern in stress-related situations that in April 2020, the US Air Force Surgeon General’s office urged their airmen to be mindful not to grind or clench their teeth when stressed by current events. They also advised Air Force members to see their dental clinic if they experience any persisting issues with grinding their teeth to avoid permanent dental damage.
Bruxism can occur when patients are asleep (nocturnal) or awake (diurnal), though it is most commonly a problem during sleep when patients are unconscious of the position of their jaws.
Teeth can wear down over time with everyday use in the aging process. However, chronic clenching and grinding cause teeth to wear away much faster, weakening them and making them more vulnerable to serious damage, such as cracks and decay.
The sharp increase in cracked and broken teeth across America in 2020 is a legitimate area of concern, and, shockingly, even healthy teeth are proving very vulnerable to pandemic stress. Dentists can help educate their patients about the dangers of teeth clenching and grinding. If patients are experiencing bruxism symptoms, including headaches, earaches, jaw pain, and tooth pain, it is vital they see their dentist for help and take preventative care measures.
Author: Julia M. Chambers has more than 25 years of experience as a freelance writer, content creator, and editor. Her interests include design, health, education, and social media. Her competitive writing experience and educational background in psychology, English composition, and special education have provided her a solid framework for exploring diverse and relevant topics.