The worry and stress of the past year have taken a physical toll on many people – even those who have not been ill or worked front-line jobs have experienced a range of issues including more tooth and jaw problems from grinding or clenching. As patients return to their dentists for regular visits, reports of cracked or chipped teeth have soared.
We are not always aware of what goes on while we sleep, but if you are waking up with a sore jaw, you may be grinding your teeth. According to a recent AARP report, the pandemic has driven a rise of 71 percent in teeth grinding and clenching (bruxism) and a 63 percent increase in chipped and cracked teeth. The incidence of temporomandibular disorder (TMJ), which affects the movement of the jaw and surrounding muscles, has also spiked by 62 percent in the past year.
For older adults, tension in the jaw can cause damage to teeth which become more brittle with age. Bite guards, which have been in high demand over the past year, may help with nighttime grinding. A warm compress can also offer relief for a sore jaw and help dissipate lactic acid that builds up with overuse of the jaw muscles.
Slouching over the computer, tablet or phone screen can also lead to clenching because the jaw protrudes forward and teeth touch. By mindfully straightening up, taking a few deep breaths, stretching every hour and placing the tongue on the roof of the mouth with teeth apart, the neck and jaw relax. Opening the jaw wide several times a day and moving the lower jaw side to side can also loosen up tight muscles. Try to get out for a walk each day, away from devices and worrisome news, to unwind and de-stress.
A good bedtime routine can also help promote more restful sleep. Turn off screens an hour before bedtime and listen to music, enjoy a warm bath and a cup of tea or escape into a book. Some people will benefit from guided meditation, journaling or a gentle yoga practice to relax.
Older adults can also help to protect teeth and enamel by treating dry mouth caused by some medications with a toothpaste containing hydroxyapatite which may help remineralize tooth enamel. Avoid acidic or surgery foods and beverages that can cause decay. When those shoulders start to creep up towards the ears and the jaw is clenching, take a breath, move around and try to unfurrow the brow and relax.