Pandemic anxiety leading to rise in jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding and facial pain, study suggests

Alexandra Thompson
·3-min read
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Jaw ache is often a tell-tale sign of nighttime teeth-grinding. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

The anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic may be affecting people physically, research suggests.

Scientists from Tel Aviv University sent a questionnaire to 1,800 people in Israel and Poland during the nations’ first lockdown.

Results revealed the infectious outbreak coincided with a rise in daytime jaw-clenching and nighttime teeth-grinding, both tell-tale symptoms of stress and anxiety.

These dental symptoms often cause pain, with the study’s participants reporting an increase in facial discomfort amid the “stay at home” restriction.

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Women aged 35 to 55 endured the worst symptoms, which the scientists put down to them being “cooped up at home with young children”.

Coronavirus pandemic, senior woman in self quarantine to avoid contagion of infection by virus covid-19. Stays home looking outdoor from the window. Prevention concept
Lockdowns have forced millions of people all over the world to stay at home, with experts warning the restrictions could lead to heightened stress and anxiety. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Early in the pandemic, experts warned the outbreak would have a “profound” and “pervasive” impact on people’s mental health for some time.

With people all over the world facing the risk of infection, economic uncertainty and social isolation, the Tel Aviv scientists set out to uncover whether the anxiety of the pandemic may trigger physical symptoms, like jaw ache.

Questionnaires were completed by 700 people in Israel and 1,092 in Poland.

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Results, published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, suggest the participants who experienced daytime jaw-clenching rose from around 17% pre-pandemic to 32% amid the first lockdown.

The prevalence of nighttime teeth-grinding also increased from 10% to 36%.

Those who endured these symptoms before the coronavirus emerged reported they became around 15% more severe after the infection started hitting the headlines.

Jaw pain and teeth-grinding was “much higher” among the Polish participants. It is unclear why this occurred.

Overall, the female participants endured worse symptoms than the men, particularly those aged 35 to 55.

“We believe our findings reflect the distress felt by the middle generation,” wrote the scientists.

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“[They] were cooped up at home with young children, without the usual help from grandparents, while also worrying about their elderly parents, facing financial problems and often required to work from home under trying conditions.”

The team concluded: “The aggravation of the psychoemotional status caused by the coronavirus pandemic can result in bruxism [teeth-grinding] and temporomandibular disorders [jaw pain] symptoms intensification, and thus lead to increased orofacial [mouth and face] pain.”

Watch: Coronavirus tension showing up in teeth

How to treat teeth-grinding

Teeth-grinding and jaw-clenching do not always cause symptoms, however, some endure facial pain and headaches, as well as their teeth being worn down over time.

Ear ache and sleep disruption, whether for the individual or their partner, can also occur.

In severe cases, teeth-grinding can lead to oral sensitivity, as well as broken fillings.

Most people who grind their teeth do so in their sleep, when concentrating or while stressed.

With many being unaware they clench their jaw, their dentist usually picks up on the signs.

Teeth damage may require treatment to ward off infections and abscesses – a collection of pus inside the teeth, gums or bone that holds teeth in place.

Less severe cases may benefit from wearing a mouth guard or splint.

Relaxation exercises – like yoga, deep breathing and having a bath – can also help.

The NHS also recommends people practice good sleep hygiene, such as going to bed at the same time every night, ensuring the room is dark and avoiding screens late in the evening.

If stress or anxiety is the underlying problem, a patient may benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy.

In the interim, painkillers can help to relieve jaw discomfort.

Teeth-grinding is also known to be made worse by excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and taking illicit drugs.

Watch: Dentists seeing more patients with jaw pain amid pandemic