The pandemic has been a challenging time for healthcare professionals. After all, their jobs inherently involve getting up close and personal with other people, and for dentists, the reality can be even more concerning: how do you fill a cavity or even just do a tooth cleaning without creating aerosolized saliva droplets? It requires an array of precautions like wearing face shields, masks, and other PPE which, taken together, have allowed dental practices to reopen. Since doing so, however, dentists have been confronted with an unusual situation: an epidemic of cracked teeth.
Though cracked teeth are hardly unheard of in normal times, many dentists now report seeing three to four cracked teeth per day on average, with some days clocking in with more than half a dozen patients complaining of such oral trauma. That’s highly unusual, and well above typical numbers and it suggests something unusual is going on. What’s causing all of these cracked teeth? The simple answer is that they’re caused by stress, but the reality is a little more complicated.
Stress, Posture, And The Jaw
When experiencing high levels of stress, people have a tendency to clench their jaws and may grind their teeth, both during the day and while asleep. This behavior can lead to cracked teeth in some individuals, but others will never experience problems from it. Others may develop temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ or TMD), a problem with the joint in the jaw, which can cause clicking, pain, headaches, and difficulty opening the mouth, among other problems. TMJ is also linked to some health conditions, such as arthritis, as well as to preexisting jaw injuries.
Dentists may be seeing more patients with TMJ and TMJ-related complaints like cracked teeth because of the pandemic due to several factors. Specifically, many people are working in unusual conditions like couches and kitchen tables that don’t support proper posture. This can cause them to slump and hold their heads in uncomfortable positions, increasing tension through the shoulders and neck and leading to jaw pain. Setting up a proper home office space and checking your posture regularly can make a significant difference.
Relieving Jaw Pain
Ideally, dentists want to interrupt the cycle of clenching and tooth grinding well before it causes cracked teeth, and many people will pursue care for other TMJ-related complaints, such as migraines and tension headaches. Depending on the individual patient, dentists may recommend wearing a mouthguard, especially when sleeping, undergoing gentle physical therapy targeting the jaw, or even pursuing surgery. Some also specialize in other TMJ interventions, like TruDenta, which is a non-invasive, multimodal treatment for jaw pain.
Identifying Jaw Problems
One reason so many people are coming to dentists with cracked teeth is that they don’t know how to identify jaw problems when they’re still mild. This allows the situation to worsen, escalating to cracked teeth, rather than being treated early on. So, how do you know if you’re clenching or grinding your teeth?
First, perform a body check. Are your teeth touching right now? If so, you’re holding tension in your jaw. This may come as a surprise to many, but your teeth shouldn’t touch if you aren’t chewing. If you’ve recently begun grinding your teeth, your partner may also notice the change, as the sound can be quite startling and may even wake others up. Other signs you’ve been clenching or grinding your teeth include facial pain, headaches, and damage to the inside of your cheeks. You’re likely to notice these issues before you notice tooth wear, chipping, or jaw dislocations – and if you do, it’s time to seek help.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a strange assortment of health complaints, from hair loss to vivid dreams and nightmares, and cracked teeth account for just a portion of this unpredictable crisis. Though it’s a challenge, these cases only serve to further highlight the importance of receiving preventative care, despite current restrictions. That care could help prevent much more serious complaints.