The Chicago Dental Society surveyed more than 250 members about the connection between stress and oral health. Nearly 75 percent of dentists said their patients reported increased stress over the past year, largely due to the prolonged economic depression. And 65 percent of dentists said they have seen an increase in jaw clenching and teeth grinding amongst their patients.
Jaw clenching and teeth grinding, or bruxism, can be a temporary nuisance during stressful times that causes headaches and sleep problems, but it also can cause lasting problems for teeth and gums. It can lead to muscle inflammation and broken teeth, and damage dental work, such as crowns and fillings. (See tips below to reduce clenching and grinding.)
Dr. Alice Boghosian, who practices general dentistry in Niles, Ill., says patients may complain of jaw pain or neck tightness and not know grinding is the cause. Dentists can usually tell upon examination.
"Everyone has a certain amount of wear at a certain age," said Dr. Boghosian. "Teeth grinding produces unusual amounts of wear that even can be seen on the front teeth."
When Dr. Boghosian sees evidence of grinding, the first question she asks is, "Have you been under stress?" Lately, she says, just about all her patients respond "Yes."
Dr. Boghosian said patients who clench and grind their teeth may also have hereditary factors that make them more prone to clenching than someone who, say, bites their nails when stressed. Another trigger can be a patient's upper and lower teeth not fitting together properly.
Since many people are not aware of their actions, Dr. Boghosian said she encourages her patients to try to relax and to focus on what they do with their mouth when feeling stressed. She will follow up a few weeks later to see if there has been any improvement.
"A significant number of times, when stress has been reduced, the symptoms causing the grinding stop," she said.
A mouth guard provides the ultimate relief from grinding, since it takes the stress off the muscles and prevents further wear on the teeth.
Occasionally patients have the tendency to clench and grind even if they're not stressed, said Dr. Boghosian. She added that some medications, including anti-depressants, can cause patients to clench their teeth.
Dr. Boghosian said she has noticed an uptick, particularly in the last five years, in the number of adolescents she sees with evidence of teeth grinding.
"They get a retainer after orthodontic treatment, and they grind right through it," said Dr. Boghosian. "I don't know if young adults are under more pressure or what. I don't think they have the downtime now that they had 15 or 20 years ago, and school work is more intense. But I haven't drawn any conclusions other than I'm seeing it more."
The Chicago Dental Society suggests the following to help prevent clenching and teeth-grinding:
1. Avoid caffeine. Coffee may help you get going in the morning, but caffeine combined with stress can lead to increased muscle tension. Increase your consumption of water instead. If cutting out caffeine won't work for you, at least try to avoid it within several hours of bedtime.
2. Exercise. Exercise relieves stress and reduces anxiety, the two biggest culprits of grinding.
3. Meditate. Try a yoga class to achieve some relaxation. Even taking a moment before bedtime to do some deep breathing can be a big help.
Tips to reduce pain from grinding and clenching:
1. Take a pain reliever. If grinding and clenching are causing headaches and muscle soreness in your jaw, take an anti-inflammatory medication, such as Advil or Aleve, shortly before bedtime.
2. Massage. Try massaging the muscles along your jaw line, from the joint near your ear all the way to your chin to relieve jaw soreness.
3. Be careful with your diet. When the jaw muscles are inflamed, it's best to go easy on them for a while by avoiding foods that require vigorous chewing. Avoid chewing on ice and gum, for example, and don't even think about that triple-decker cheeseburger that requires almost unhinging your jaw to eat it.
4. Wear a mouth guard. If you have serious grinding and clenching issues, talk to your dentist about a mouth guard to wear at night.
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The survey was conducted for the Chicago Dental Society's 145th annual Midwinter Meeting, which will bring more than 30,000 dental professionals to Chicago Feb.25-27. The Midwinter Meeting is a forum for dentists to learn about new products, technologies, and methods.