The COVID-19 pandemic has caused much hand-wringing among Americans since last March. It’s also caused a ton of teeth grinding.

A recent survey of dentists conducted by the American Dental Association reported that more than 70% of dentists reported increases of teeth grinding in their practices since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, said Dr. Linda C. Niessen, dean of the Kansas City University College of Dental Medicine, which is under development in Joplin.

Dentists have also reported a similar increase in chipped or cracked teeth, as well as problems concerning the temporomandibular joints, which are the sliding hinges connecting the jawbones to the skull. Clenching and grinding teeth can result in chips and cracks.

“Most people may not realize that the stress they’re experiencing can manifest itself in their mouths,” Niessen said. “I tell patients that if you are in a meeting ... and you look down and see your fists clenched, check to see if you are clenching your jaws too. Often, you are. So as you unclench your fists, take a breath and unclench your jaw too.”

On the plus side, people are venturing out of their homes and back into dentist offices as the pandemic begins to wane and vaccines become more widely available, Niessen said.

“I think of consumer confidence like the Munchkins in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Remember the scene ... after the house falls on the Wicked Witch? Glenda arrives to help Dorothy understand where she is. Glenda then encourages the Munchkins that it’s safe to come out again,” she said. “The vaccine is increasing our confidence so we feel safe to come out again.”

Katie Champion, a dentist at Advanced Dental Care in Joplin, said she hasn’t seen a significant decline in patient appointments over the past six months. But Joplin is no stranger to stress-related oral health problems such as tooth grinding and muscle tension.

“I think that part of our role as clinicians is to properly educate our patients on the importance of oral health care and give them enough information so that they can make well-informed decisions about their dental treatment and overall health,” she said.

The American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute has been tracking patients’ visits to the dentist once the pandemic began, and dentists’ offices were closed for months on end. In rural areas, 84% of patients have returned to see their dentists after nearly a year about a checkup or appointment, according to the Feb. 15 poll.

Since the pandemic began, dentists have implemented new infection control protocols inside their offices to make sure the environment is safe for patients.

For those in the Joplin area who may be anxious about keeping their appointments, “we emphasize that we have always prided ourselves on providing top-notch sterilization and infection control practices and that their safety is our top priority,” Champion said. “Our main goal has always been to keep our patients healthy and disease-free, and that hasn’t changed since before or after the pandemic.”

That should be wonderful news for residents, considering just how important the mouth is to the rest of the body.

“The last time I checked, the mouth is connected to the rest of your body, and infection in your mouth can lead to inflammation in other parts of your body,” Niessen said. “Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said it best when he said, ‘You are not healthy without good oral health.’”

Research has shown that oral infections, particularly periodontal disease, can contribute to heart disease, diabetes and even lung disease.

“Seeing your dentist and having therapies to prevent and treat periodontal disease, like scaling and (deep cleanings), oral infection is eliminated, inflammation is decreased and your overall health is improved,” Niessen said.

And what about the so-called “mask mouth”?

“COVID-19 has certainly introduced some new oral conditions, of which mask mouth is one of them,” Niessen said.

Mask mouth occurs when an individual wears a mask for long periods of time, resulting in a dry mouth and bad breath. A dry mouth for prolonged periods can increase the risk for tooth decay.

Thankfully, “an effective daily oral hygiene routine of brushing and flossing will help get rid of your bad breath,” Niessen said. “If your bad breath continues, it could be a sign of (gum) disease, and you should schedule an appointment to see your dentist.”

Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.

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