The weird side effect of COVID-19 dentists are seeing all the time now

COVID-19 has challenged our patience and adaptability toward a world that isn’t really our own. It’s shifted work to new boundaries and turned simple tasks like grocery shopping into cross-country trips as we navigate a society six-feet apart with masks and all.

Mentally, Americans are being tested. Stress levels have surpassed levels seen more than a decade ago during the Great Recession, and it’s stress that’s the culprit for many medical phenomenons that professionals have been encountering due to the pandemic.

There’s been “shock hair loss,” which has people losing hair rapidly due to experiencing extreme stress. There’s “coronasomnia” and vivid dreams and nightmares, making sleep experts worry about the longterm effects the coronavirus pandemic will have on our sleep. “Maskne” — acne caused by irritation from wearing masks — has dermatologists seeing more patients than normal. 

Now, dentists’ are starting to see something they haven’t seen from their patients possible ever — more severe dental problems. Beyond cavities and routine cleanings, dentists across the US and other parts of the world have noticed a spike in cracked or damaged teeth likely the cause of an increase in jaw clenching and grinding due to stress during the ongoing pandemic.

With offices being closed at the beginning of the lockdown, dentist offices started to see more cases of cracked teeth once offices reopened in June.

New York City-based dentist Tammy Chen wrote an op-ed in The New York Times where she said she’s seen tooth fractures every day since reopening her practice in early June, with as many as six in one workday.

“At least one a day, every single day that I’ve been in the office. On average, I’m seeing three to four; the bad days are six-plus fractures,” Chen wrote.

Chen said the culprit for cracked teeth is stress, which can lead to clenching and grinding. When you clench and grind your teeth, you put stress on them and that can lead to damage. But Chen said there’s another cause in the rise of cracked teeth — the shift to remote working —which has caused us to find comfort in an unusual workstation.

“First, an unprecedented number of Americans are suddenly working from home, often wherever they can cobble together a makeshift workstation: on the sofa, perched on a barstool, tucked into a corner of the kitchen counter. The awkward body positions that ensue can cause us to hunch our shoulders forward, curving the spine into something resembling a C-shape,” Chen wrote.

“If you’re wondering why a dentist cares about ergonomics, the simple truth is that 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.”

The second cause behind the uptick in tooth problems is sleep. The pandemic has been a nightmare on sleep patterns, with as many as 63% of Americans fearing they will never be able to return to pre-pandemic sleep routines. Chen said Americans aren’t getting enough restorative sleep and that’s what we need in order to relieve tension that isn’t leaving in the right places.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve listened to patient after patient describe sudden restlessness and insomnia. These are hallmarks of an overactive or dominant sympathetic nervous system, which drives the body’s “fight or flight” response. Think of a gladiator preparing for battle: balling his fists, clenching his jaw. Because of the stress of coronavirus, the body stays in a battle-ready state of arousal, instead of resting and recharging. All that tension goes straight to the teeth,” she wrote.

Chen said being aware that your teeth are touching is a start to remedy the issue, while being mindful that you might be grinding can help you catch it before it becomes a bigger problem. Devices such as a night guard or retainer can promote better practices and prevent grinding, while figuring out a better at-home setup with your computer screen at eye level can help fix your posture.

If you’re noticing this as a problem, it wouldn’t hurt to stop by the dentist before you cause further issues.