Hello, it’s 2020, and the strain of this absolute dumpster fire year is causing people to destroy their own teeth. No, seriously.
According to a recent survey of 3,491 American dentists, the majority of providers have seen a rise in stress-related oral health conditions since the pandemic began. This includes grinding and clenching (technically called bruxing), chipped and cracked teeth, and symptoms of temporomandibular disorders (i.e., dysfunction of the jaw muscles, joints, and nerves).
If this all sounds terrible, well, it is. But there’s hope, thanks to a retainer-like device known as the night guard. Typically worn while sleeping, the night guard relaxes the jaw and helps prevent grinding (which can cause a host of other oral issues) by acting as a barrier between teeth. With so many people gnashing these days, the night guard is definitely ~having a moment.~
“I’ve never had this many [patients in night guards],” says Tricia Quartey-Sagaille, DMD, American Dental Association spokesperson and CEO of Noble Dental Care in New York City. Wilfred Heilbut, DMD, another dentist in New York City, describes the recent surge of patients requesting night guards as “extraordinary.”
Factors contributing to this spike
If you’re wondering what’s behind this spike in stress-related bruxing—and by extension, night guards—the better question is, what isn’t?
An estimated 80% to 90% of the population likely grinds and clenches their teeth in cycles associated with stress, explains Jana Ikeda, DDS, a dentist in Boulder, Colorado. And during this devastating year of loss and deprivation, stress is one thing we all have too much of.
“You can well imagine there are few areas of our society that have not been touched by our politics, our public health system, the economic stresses, the closing of businesses, and also the sense of the unknown,” says Heilbut. “So if I really think about it, I too would stress.”
When Quartey-Sagaille sees patients with signs and symptoms of bruxing, she asks if they are experiencing more stress lately. All of them, she says, laugh in response because of course.
Mental anguish isn’t the only cause of bruxing. There can be more serious concerns like neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s which can trigger it, along with sleep breathing disorders, like sleep apnea. Being in pain can also lead someone to grind, says Ikeda, and so can having a misaligned jaw, reports Elliot Ahdoot, DDS, a dentist at Santa Monica Dental Care in Los Angeles. In other words, this is why it’s important to keep up with your regular dental appointments (which you can still do safely in the pandemic) so a professional can make sure there’s no cause for concern.
Problems of grinding without a guard
Night guards may not be the sexiest bedtime accessory, but grinding without one can cause serious problems.
For starters: tooth sensitivity, gum or bone recession, and jaw joint issues, says Ikeda. Moreover, you could wear your teeth down to the point where the nerves are nearly exposed, explains Ahdoot. Some severe grinders even grind their teeth down to the gum.
A bad case of bruxing could also cause cracked teeth. “We’re seeing much more of that than we ever have in the past,” says Heilbut. In some cases you can fracture your teeth beyond repair, warns Quartey-Sagaille. “You can break it to a point where the inside part of the tooth is exposed, and now you have a higher likelihood of having cavities and then the pain associated with that.”
How to know if you need a night guard
A lot of people aren’t aware that they’re grinding their teeth, explains Ahdoot. Which is why it’s important to understand the telltale signs so you can raise the issue with your dentist if needed. (Your dentist may also ID the problem themselves during a routine cleaning.)
One key sign? Waking up in the morning with a headache or a tight, achy jaw. Other watchouts you might notice include teeth sensitivity, fracturing and cracking of the teeth, gum recession, and jaw clicking, popping, or pain. If you catch yourself grinding or clenching during the day, you’re likely also doing it at night, says Ikeda.
A night guard is often the first line of treatment for folks suffering from bruxing symptoms. You may opt for an over-the-counter, store-bought guard, which is almost always made of soft plastic material. Or you might request a custom-made device from your dentist; these can be constructed from soft or hard material.
Dentist-made night guards are often smaller and more form-fitting, and they better control the movement of your jaw and the distribution of forces, explains Ikeda. But over-the-counter alternatives work well for a lot of people too, with the exception being a small number of folks who use store-bought guards as a “subconscious nocturnal chew toy,” Ikeda explains. (This, of course, only worsens inflammation in the jaw joint.) So if you think you might benefit from a night guard, check in with your dentist first to make sure it’s the appropriate course of action and if it is, that you get fitted for the right kind.
Also worth noting: Just because you have jaw pain doesn’t mean you will automatically be prescribed a night guard. Depending on your symptoms, your dentist may recommend anti-inflammatory medication, says Heilbut, or a soft-food diet, which can minimize the strain on your jaw. Or if your doc suspects your bruxing is caused by a misaligned jaw, they may opt to fix that issue with a treatment like Invisalign, as is common procedure at Ahdoot’s office.
Your dentist may also prescribe a night guard alongside other guidance. In Ikeda’s practice, for instance, night guard wearers are encouraged to avoid hard, crunchy foods; put heat packs on their face before bed; be mindful of jaw position during the day; and minimize habits that cause the jaw to open wide, like yawning and taking big bites of food.
In many cases, night guards and at-home remedies can alleviate bruxing symptoms. But if your grinding is caused by stress—which is the case for many grinders—it’s important to also tackle the underlying cause. “What can we do to help get the stress out of your life?” asks Quartey-Sagaille.
While it’s damn near impossible to completely eliminate anxiety—especially in today’s world—it is feasible to manage it. Seek out tools like therapy, meditation, and exercise. Let’s also all hope, and pray, that 2021 brings less bruxing, fewer night guards, and maybe even some good news for a change.
Originally Appeared on Glamour