The stress of the pandemic is a grind. A data analysis from the American Dental Association shows a surge in cases of teeth grinding, clenching and cracking during the COVID-19 crisis. The increases are striking and potentially costly and painful for sufferers.
Data reviewed by the News4 I-Team shows a nearly 55 percent increase in cases of cracked and chipped teeth since March. The increases in cases of teeth grinding and clenching are even higher, nearing 60 percent.
There is a strong link between dental injuries and stress, according to the American Dental Association.
The incidents are even more frequent in the Washington, D.C., region — an area notorious for stressful work, commutes and high living expenses — according to several local dental practices who spoke with the I-Team.
“We see a lot of people coming in with results of stress fractures,” said Bruce Hutchison, a dentist who has operated a dental practice in Centreville, Virginia, for 38 years.
“They’re breaking teeth left and right and having generalized sore teeth,” Hutchison said. “The common thread is stress. I think it’s COVID. It makes everybody stressed.”
“This is a very high-stress area to begin with. Many of us are already clenchers and grinders,” said Washington D.C. periodontist Sally Cram, an American Dental Association spokesperson.
Cram and multiple other local dentists said rates of bruxism, the condition in which patients gnash, grind or clench teeth, is traditionally higher in the region.
Cram said there are other factors contributing to the increase in injuries. She said patients are increasingly forgoing regular dental checkups during the pandemic. Food choices are changing, too.
“Our diets are probably not as good as they were in the past,” Cram said. “People are enjoying a lot more sweets and overeating a lot more.”
The teeth clenching and grinding that are triggering the increase in injuries are often occurring as people sleep. The stress of the pandemic and the other crises of this year can manifest itself during overnight hours.
“People can clench eight times harder when they sleep than they do during the day,” Hutchison said.
Hutchison recommends patients undertake some stress-relief efforts before bed, including meditation.
“These injuries can be painful and expensive,” said Layla Bohm, a 911 operator who has suffered bouts of teeth clenching and a series of dental injuries.
Coronavirus Cases in DC, Maryland and Virginia
COVID-19 cases by population in D.C. and by county in Maryland and Virginia
Bohm said stress-related clenching caused her to crack a molar and later damaged the crown placed to protect the damaged molar. Bohm wears a fitted nightguard to protect her teeth from further damage. The guards can be purchased over-the-counter at pharmacies, but a dentist fitting is recommended.
The increase in dental injuries could lag behind the pandemic for months. Stress-induced teeth clenching and grinding weakens teeth and increases the risks of fractures and chips for months or years later.
The surge in dental injuries has strained dental practices, which are operating under stricter guidelines and local COVID-19-related health restrictions. Dental offices have purchased newer, or larger, quantities of personal protective equipment. Restrictions on capacity have made scheduling more challenging for some practices.
A News4 I-Team review of U.S. Small Business Administration loan reports shows the federal government has provided dental practices with at least 101,397 Paycheck Protection Program loans worth more than $8 billion since March. The infusion of federal money helped alleviate the cost of equipment purchases and prevent layoffs at dental providers. Dental trade associations are lobbying Congress for a new round of federal aid, as the pandemic case numbers and economy worsen.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Patricia Fantis, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.