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Stress: A Gnawing Concern

Effects on Oral Health

If the daily grind is wearing you down, it may be eroding your teeth as well. When dentists look into your mouth, it is like a crystal ball of clues into symptoms of stress factors in your life. 

During routine dental examinations, stress-related conditions such as orofacial pain, bruxism, temporomandibular disorders (TMD), mouth sores and gum disease can be detected. But, many patients aren’t aware of just how destructive stress can be to their oral health until faced with a situation that requires immediate attention from a specialist. 

“Stress manifests in different ways, and it’s hard for most people to identify how stress is impacting their health until they have a problem,” says Dr. Geoff Haradon, Rocky Mountain Periodontal Specialists. “Some experience cracking, or loss of bone and tooth structure, but it ultimately results in a compromise to oral health.” 

Regular dentist visits are crucial to catching stress related disorders early. General dentists frequently recognize the onset of symptoms and can take preemptive measures before the condition worsens. 

Dr. Monica Dobbin observes that stress finds indirect pathways to oral health. “Often, patients who are under stress tend to neglect their oral hygiene routine.” She notes that when we have so much going on it is hard to remember to brush and floss correctly. “With regular patients, I can tell when their dental care habits have changed.”

Poor dietary and sleep habits can also be a result of stress that leads to dental issues. “When people are over-exerted and stressed, they tend to reach for more carbohydrate-laden foods and sugary drinks that promote tooth decay, inflamed gums, and gingivitis,” says Dr. Dobbin. “Sleeping poorly also leads to a reduced immune system that can cause conditions such as canker sores, dry or burning mouth syndromes and increased susceptibility to infections.”

Most short-term impacts of stress can be managed or even reversed, however if unattended, long-term physiological diseases and permanent damage may occur. For instance, sometimes people don’t even realize that they are clenching and grinding at night until they have fractured a tooth. 

By the time a patient must visit a specialist such as an endodontist or periodontist, the condition has likely progressed. Dr. Karl Lackler, Rocky Mountain Periodontal Specialists, observes that “stress-related facets in patients’ teeth reveal bone loss patterns that are roadmaps of clenching and grinding.” He describes a host of related conditions, including cracked teeth and inflammation that can go into the joint muscle and tissue requiring treatments such as crowns, extractions, and bone grafting. 

Managing Stress to Protect Oral Health

As researchers are discovering significant connections between anxiety and oral health, dentistry is becoming keenly attuned to finding ways to identify and manage the dental problems that result.

“More than ever, the dentistry field is realizing that oral health is part of a whole big picture,” explains Dr. Dobbin. “Depending on symptoms, dentists can recommend specific treatments, such as a mouth guard to protect teeth during sleep, orthodontic treatment to minimize orofacial pain, or even a referral to a sleep specialist.”

One of the biggest movements in dentistry is the recognition of sleep apnea (which is often linked to anxiety disorders) and its effects on oral health, according to Dr. Lackler. “The overlapping of specialists in both medicine and dentistry is continuously evolving in an effort to become more preventative, rather than just fixing the problem.”

With the heightened awareness of the ‘mind-mouth’ connection, don’t be surprised if your dentist suggests a regimen of yoga, along with flossing (likely not to be executed at the same time.) To safe-guard your oral well-being and minimize tension, Dr. Haradon emphasizes the importance of integrating stress management through exercise, relaxation, meditation, or even massage therapy, along with consistent oral hygiene.