By Susan Richards
April has been deemed Stress Awareness Month since 1992, but it’s fair to say after this past year most Americans wouldn’t need a calendar designation to be acutely aware of stress. Between the global pandemic resulting in employment and education upheavals and high-profile political and civil unrest, the stressors impacting society are difficult to ignore.
In a January 2021 survey conducted by The Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association (APA), adults reported an average stress level of 5.6, with 1 meaning “little to no stress” and 10 indicating “a great deal of stress.” This is slightly higher than reported even last April in the early days of COVID-19. In fact, 84% admitted to feeling anxious, sad, or angry at the beginning of 2021. The future of our country accounted for 81% of the stress adults were experiencing and 80% cited the coronavirus pandemic.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that this much anxiety eventually lands many people in their dentist’s chair with a range of stress-related symptoms and issues. Although dental professionals saw fewer patients at the height of the pandemic in 2020, many of them reported a notable increase in chipped, cracked, and broken teeth as a result of bruxism.
Specifically, a poll conducted by the Health Policy Institute and American Dental Association found more than 70% of dentists surveyed saw stress-related oral health conditions.
TMJ and TMD
They’re also seeing an increase in temporomandibular disorders, or TMD. While a large number of people mistakenly refer to these issues as TMJ, that acronym actually refers to the temporomandibular joint that connects the jaw to the skull and allows us to comfortably talk, eat, and yawn.
Comfortably, that is until pressure, an injury, or arthritis impacts the joint making it painful. The exact cause isn’t always easy to determine, but in addition to stress, medication side effects or genetics can factor in as well. TMD symptoms may include:
• Tenderness in the jaw or joints.
• Orofacial pain.
• Difficulty chewing.
• A clicking sound when opening the mouth.
• A grating sensation when chewing.
• A locking of the jaw, or limited range of motion.
These symptoms are often temporary and don’t require serious medical intervention, but long-term grinding of the teeth or jaw clenching can increase the risk factors.
Bruxism, or teeth grinding, typically happens at night when a patient isn’t aware that they’re doing it. Chronic clenching of the jaw or gritting of the teeth is more noted during the day, although may people aren’t always conscious of the tension. Both behaviors can be a result of the aforementioned global stress and lead to the TMD symptoms dentists and primary care physicians are seeing now.
If TMJ discomfort is determined to be associated with anxiety and not a related injury, medication, or arthritis, there are several steps a patient can take on their own to gain relief from jaw pain including:
- Hot or cold compresses on the jaw muscles and temple area.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Avoiding overuse of jaw muscles with soft foods and smaller bites.
- Gently massage the muscles near the ear.
- Stretching the neck as well as the jaw by holding the mouth open wide.
When the problem is more severe, a dentist may take other steps to reduce the pressure on the teeth before permanent damage can occur. The most common method for serious sleep-grinders is to be fitted for a mouthguard. The plastic mouthpiece works to separate the teeth and reduce the effects of nocturnal behaviors that can result in cracked teeth or improper alignment.
If the issues aren’t alleviated by self-care or a dental device, there are other options the dentist may pursue or refer a patient for treatment; these include:
- Ultrasound – applying deep heat to the joint.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS.
- Trigger point injections of a pain med or anesthesia.
- In extreme cases, TMJ surgery.
In Conclusion: Relax?
The sobering truth is that the physical and mental health toll of the Covid-19 pandemic will be felt long after it’s declared “over.” In addition to bruxism and TMD, stress can also contribute to feelings of fear and sadness, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetites, and much more.
Telling patients to simply relax in the face of such challenges would probably be as effective as expecting them to brush and floss daily while stranded on a desert island. However, everyone can strive to find healthy ways to cope with the increased stress, such as deep breathing and meditation, regular exercise, staying connected with others, eating healthy, and of course, getting vaccinated.
Author Bio: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.