We know the coronavirus can take a toll on everything from our hearts to our brains. But dentists are starting to look at whether it may take a toll on our teeth, too.
According to an American Dental Association poll of its members, the pandemic has given rise to a 71 percent increase in teeth grinding and clenching (or bruxism), a 63 percent increase in chipped and cracked teeth, and a 62 percent increase in pain and compromised movement of the jaw and surrounding muscles, known as temporomandibular disorder (TMD).
Matthew Messina, D.D.S., dental clinic director of Ohio State University Upper Arlington Dentistry, notes that he made more bite guards (which reduce teeth grinding) during two months of the pandemic than he made in all of 2019.
Leila Jahangiri, D.D.S., a clinical professor and the chair of the Department of Prosthodontics at the New York University College of Dentistry, reports treating a 62-year-old patient with nine teeth fractures.
So what gives? Could there be a link between the coronavirus and dental issues — like teeth suddenly turning so brittle as to fracture by nearly the dozen? A recent piece in The New York Times raised that very question, citing an array of dental issues — from teeth popping out unexpectedly to suddenly turning gray — among some COVID long-haulers, those who have recovered from the worst of the coronavirus, but still have lingering symptoms.
As of now, dentists seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. “We do know that coronavirus seems to have many different variations in terms of how it is presenting and how people are responding to it,” says Stephen Shuman, D.D.S., professor and director of the Oral Health Services for Older Adults Program at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry. “And we do know that oral health and general health and systemic health are linked.”
But, Shuman notes, there may or may not be a direct link between the virus itself and the health of our teeth. “Clearly, we're hearing reports of people under stress, who are grinding and clenching, and causing problems,” he notes. “But that's stress — it's not necessarily the coronavirus doing it."
As Messina explains, that excessive mouth movement is actually part of our body's fight-or-flight response. When we're presented with a threat, the body releases hormones that help us quickly summon energy. Of course, we can't physically fight mental stress, so our body looks for an outlet to burn off that excess energy — for example, clenching and grinding our teeth.
And, yes, older teeth will fare worse in that case. While the outer protective covering known as enamel is stronger than bone when we're younger, it turns more brittle with age. (And pressure from grinding can put up to 250 pounds of force on our already vulnerable choppers.) Initially, hairline cracks are restricted to the outside of the enamel. But there's potential for the cracks to propagate over time, spreading to the inner layer, or dentin. And that is when the problems begin.