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By Anne Blythe

Election Day is here — finally.

To say 2020 has been a stressful year is one of those “well duh” statements that won’t send you running for your most trusted fact-checker for confirmation.

This campaign season, which began long before the start of this most unusual year, has brought much jaw clenching with the seemingly endless political rhetoric.

Combine that with the doomsday drumbeat accompanying the coronavirus pandemic, racial strife, hurricanes, juggling work while homeschooling children, job losses and economic uncertainty, and many are knowingly or unknowingly grinding their teeth.

The American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute reported in September that a poll of dentists nationwide found that a majority “have seen increases in stress-related oral health conditions since the onset of the pandemic.”

Jeffrey Johnston, the chief science officer for North Carolina for the insurer Delta Dental, said it’s “no surprise” there’s been an uptick in people grinding their teeth.

“Anytime that you have any kind of stress, especially economic stress, especially pandemic and economic stress, we know that people who are under more stress tend to grind their teeth more,” Johnston said. “When you grind your teeth more, you end up breaking more fillings and breaking more teeth, and having more TMD problems, that’s pain in front of your ears, that kind of stuff.”

Johnston said he’s hearing about it from his colleagues too, and it’s popping up in the literature.

Dentists reported seeing a 59.4 percent increase in bruxism, or an unconscious grinding of the teeth, typically while asleep, that can lead to headaches, earaches, pain in jaw joints, cracks, fractures or erosion of the teeth.

Jason Carney, a second grader at Windsor Elementary School student has his teeth cleaned. Photo credit: Cliff Hollis/ECU photos.

Justin Russo, who has a general and cosmetic dentistry practice in Raleigh, has seen so many more problems from patients clenching their jaws and grinding their teeth that he has added an endodontist, who can help with related root canals, and a periodontist to assist with the increased need for dental implants.

“People are grinding their teeth more,” Russo said this week.

What precisely is behind the behavior is not something Russo has investigated too deeply with his patients. They’re not sitting in a dentist’s chair to talk about the stress in their lives. After all, his hands are in their mouths and a therapist might be better trained for that discussion.

During REM sleep, Russo said, 90 percent of the people grind and clench their teeth some. He speculates that pandemic stress is at the root of the increase in cracked and loosened teeth that he has been seeing in recent months.

It also could be because some people are home and snacking more instead of eating well-balanced, nutritious meals.

Add in the stress from the political season, he said, and that’s akin “to the cherry on top of the sundae.”

Photo credit: ECU photos

Though it’s Election Day and results from one of the most divisive elections in many years could be known soon, there could be some teeth clenching in the days and weeks ahead.

Political analysts have offered many post-election scenarios, raising the possibility of more rhetoric about ballot counting and any court challenges about the electoral process.

Presidential elections are often a source of stress, according to a recent Harris Poll done for the American Psychological Association. The 2020 election is a greater source of significant stress for Americans than the 2016 election, the poll found, with 68 percent of Americans surveyed acknowledging as much compared to the 52 percent in 2016.

Whatever the source of stress, dentists are dealing with the fallout.

Johnston said Delta Dental hasn’t analyzed their data yet to see if more crowns have been placed in the past few months, but he did say that procedure has been on the rise.

“Dentists are busy out there. And they’re busy turning drills, not just doing cleaning. So I bet if we look back a year from now, we’ll see more crowns being done because of this,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind about it.”

Implants and root canals can be pricey even if dental insurance covers part of the cost, Russo added.

“Dental insurance is not all that,” he said.

“Out of the last 10 years, I’ve never seen more grumpy people than I’ve seen lately,” Russo said.

Rose Hoban contributed to this report.

ECU dental students work with a patient. Photo credit: ECU photos.

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.

2 replies on “This has been a jaw-clenching year. Dentists deal with the fall-out.”

  1. This has definitely been a rough year for dentists. First were the shut downs imposed by state and local governments. Now, although they’re trying to have as much normalcy as possible, some patients are ill at ease going to see the dentist. The pandemic has changed everything. However, as scared you may be, the precautions that dental offices are taking to protect you and themselves are above and beyond what you may expect. It is probably safer to go now than it has ever been before.

  2. I feel badly for NC dentists and patients. When my high school aged son needed his wisdom teeth out due to terrible, I spent one month getting approval from our dental insurance and healthcare insurance for the removal procedure, trying hard to make sure that insurance would pay. I called every week for a month and ran into LOTS of stonewalling on getting basic letters as to what each policy would pay. I called my senator’s office, but they couldn’t help. Meanwhile my son was taking ibuprofen every night, waking in pain, and he was gargling with salt water to prevent infection. I apologized to my son, but I explained that by reading YELP reviews, I was aware that if families don’t take lots of time to get these letters from insurance companies, it appears that billing problems occur. Finally, I got the letters to authorize my son’s wisdom tooth removal, and he got them taken out. We were all so relieved, but then we got a letter from the surgeon’s office that even with these letters, they were running into problems getting insurance to pay in a timely manner. It’s a shame that the US is #1 in costs but the system appears so broken. I wonder how many people grind their teeth worrying about healthcare and dental billing issues. Clearly, I don’t blame the providers.

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