Has the stress of 2020 left you grinding your teeth?
Or perhaps you’re suffering from headaches, jaw pain, or severe discomfort in and around your ears, all of which can be brought about by the tension many people are experiencing this year as a pandemic, a recession, social unrest, and a divisive presidential election create strain in nearly everyone’s life.
“All of these symptoms can be connected to TMJ disorders,” says Dr. Cathy Hung (www.drcathyhung.com), an oral surgeon and author of Pulling Wisdom: Filling Gaps of Cross-Cultural Communication for Healthcare Providers.
TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint, which is the name for the right and left joints that connect the jaw to the skull. Those joints do yeoman work every day as people talk, eat, yawn or otherwise keep their jaws moving. But the joints also can become the source of extraordinarily unpleasant sensations when things go awry.
“There are a number of reasons a person might suffer from TMJ disorders, including a physical injury or disease,” Hung says. “But stress is also one of the major causes, and I have seen patients with TMJ due to stress from the pandemic. When people are tense, they often clench or grind their teeth, tightening their jaw muscles and putting stress on the TM joints. Sometimes severe clenching also can lead to a cracked tooth or cracked dental crown.”
Hung offers a few tips on what to do when the stress in people’s lives manifests itself in oral ailments:
• Teeth grinding. Technically known as bruxism, this is when someone grinds, gnashes, or clenches their teeth. This can happen unconsciously while people are awake, Hung says, but also takes place while they are asleep. Severe cases can lead to TMJ, headaches, and teeth damage. Treatments can include efforts to reduce stress. A doctor can also prescribe muscle relaxants that can help, or a dentist or oral surgeon might fit the person with a mouth guard to wear while sleeping.
• Tension headaches. Many people likely wouldn’t associate a tension headache with their oral health, but in some cases, there is a connection. A tension headache is a band-like headache that wraps around the temples, Hung says. How does that relate to TMJ disorder? Tension headaches can come from clenching. Headaches associated with TMJ often have other symptoms connected to the jaw, such as jaw pain or restricted movement of the jaw. Over-the-counter pain medications can help, but if they don’t a visit to a medical professional is in order, Hung says.
• Other TMJ symptoms. Hung says there are a few signs that indicate a person is suffering from TMJ disorder. “For example, you may have a misaligned bite, or pain and a clicking or grating noise when you open your mouth,” she says. “Or, you may have trouble opening your mouth wide.” To combat the problem, oral surgeons such as Hung can use a number of treatments, including the aforementioned stress management and night-time mouth guards that are recommended for teeth grinding. In many cases, physical therapy can help. Other treatments could include bite adjustment, orthodontics with or without jaw reconstruction, or restorative dental work. “Surgery is sometimes needed, but only in the most severe cases and as a last resort,” Hung says.
2020 has produced one source of stress after another, and in many cases, people can do little about the events that are putting a burden on their emotional and physical well being. But that’s not the case if stress caused you to suffer from TMJ disorder and other related problems.
“Certainly, treatment can take time to be effective,” Hung says. “But you’ll be glad to know that problems associated with TMJ disorder are more easily diagnosed and treated than they were in the past.”
By Dr. Cathy Hung (www.drcathyhung.com), author of Pulling Wisdom