It’s not exactly clear how many Americans grind and clench their teeth. Some estimates suggest about 10% regularly grind ― which involves moving your top and bottom teeth from side to side ― 20% regularly clench their teeth together and up to 70% say they’ve done one (or both) at some point in their lives.
But whatever the estimates, dentists say they’re seeing a lot more of both during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m hearing patients tell me, ‘I can’t stop clenching and grinding at night,’” Sherwin Arman, director of the Orofacial Pain Program at the UCLA School of Dentistry, told HuffPost. They are also frequently mentioning the recession and the election, he added.
Are you one of them? Worried about clenching and grinding? Here’s what you should know:
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Call your dentist as soon as you notice it.
Sometimes clenching and grinding are diagnosed during regular dental visits when a dentist or hygienist spots signs indicating an ongoing problem, like worn-down tooth enamel or flattening.
But there are other ways the problems show up. Your sleep partner might notice you’re gnashing your teeth at night. Or perhaps you develop pain or tension in your face or jaw. You might have a headache concentrated in your temples, or feel pain and sensitivity directly in your teeth. All of these can be signs and symptoms.
“Talking to a dental professional is the No. 1 most important thing,” said Shuchi Dhadwal, former director of the Craniofacial Pain Center at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. “They’ll take a detailed history and, depending on what you’re presenting with, help you find the best solution for you.”
That’s because various factors can contribute to clenching and grinding, including (but by no means limited to) stress, underlying sleep disorders and even particular medications, like SSRI antidepressants.
A dental professional will take a close look at your bite, your teeth and your mouth, explained Gail McCausland, clinical director of the advanced education program in Periodontology at Boston University’s School of Dental Medicine. They’ll be able to determine if you have underlying issues, too, like broken or chipped teeth or if your bite is misaligned.
Keep a pain log.
It can be really helpful to jot down some notes for your dentist or doctor about your experience, Arman said. If you wake up with a headache, for example, you might be grinding at night. If you notice yourself clenching at specific times of day, it might be in response to particular stressors. (For example, does it happen when you’re watching the news? When you’re at work? Overnight after a day of helping your kids with remote learning?)
Keep a log of when you have headaches and pain, and what it feels like. “If you don’t understand what’s causing [clenching and grinding], you may get recurrence,” McCausland said.
Really knowing when discomfort crops up and how long it lasts can help your dentist get a much better understanding of your underlying cause or causes.
Avoid DIY-ing a mouth guard.
Mouth guards are sometimes used to help address grinding by mitigating some of the damage done to teeth at night. But dentists warn against trying to address the problem on your own.
“I often tell patients, if I give you a shoe that’s not the right size, you’re going to have discomfort while walking,” Dhadwal said.
She’s seen many patients who took a relatively mild problem (teeth grinding with some pain) and worsened it by wearing a mouth guard that wasn’t right for them, even causing severe bite changes or a locked jaw.
Before trying an over-the-counter guard, Dhadwal recommends that, if possible, at least talk to a dentist, who can give you tips on how to form it to your mouth, which brand would be best and more.
Get out the stickers.
Yes, it is important to first be evaluated by a dental professional who can set you on the right course. But there are also strategies you can try at home, particularly when it comes to daytime clenching. (Though both are unconscious behaviors, nighttime grinding isn’t one you can necessarily control as much on your own.)
Simply reminding yourself to separate your teeth can make a big difference, Arman said. There are free apps you can download that send you gentle reminders throughout the day to keep your teeth apart, which immediately relieves tension in your jaw and face.
Or you can go old-school and buy a pack of stickers that you place throughout your belongings — on your remote, on your phone, on the refrigerator.
“When you see them, they remind you to keep your teeth apart,” Arman said.
Bottom line: Be ready to take a close look at your emotional well-being.
It’s not always clear exactly why a person starts clenching or grinding. But sometimes it’s obvious. Stress can be a major contributor.
“It’s very important to understand the onset of pain,” Dhadwal said. “Patients usually circle back to a stressful moment in their life, and I tell them: ‘I can prescribe you a custom-fit appliance, but if you don’t take care of what’s going on, you might have difficulty managing the situation.’”
She regularly refers patients to psychologists and works closely with mental health professionals so patients can treat not only what’s going on in their mouth but also find strategies for managing stress.
These methods can include lifestyle habits, such as increasing exercise; meditation; and spending more time outdoors, as well as treatments like therapy and medication.
Dhadwal said she’s personally seen an uptick in grinding and clenching since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“I cannot tell you the number of patients coming in, and when I ask, ‘When did this start?’ they say, ‘March or April,’” she said.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeking mental health help or addressing your stress. If there’s ever a time to make your mind a priority, it’s now.