You bet it can! When we are stressed, we do not sleep well and this can lead to plenty of clenching and grinding of the teeth. If this goes on long enough, the grinding/clenching can actually damage your jaw joints and displace the discs in the joints that are designed to protect the jaw bones.
In the past few months my office has seen many new patients to the practice and their chief complaint has been pain due to clenching/grinding of the teeth. The stress of dealing with quarantine and the Covid-19 isolation is really getting to people. Many people are worried about their jobs right now and I have met many who have not left their house except to come see me here at the office. They feel like they cannot wait anymore in dealing with the pain.
So why is all this stress so difficult on people? Well, what I personally see is that people are clenching their teeth together more frequently than they normally would. This is actually a fairly normal reaction to stress. It’s just like if we lived 1000 years ago- going into battle we clench our teeth and take a defensive, or offensive, stance in preparation for an attack. Well, stress does the same thing to our body- our sympathetic nervous system is activated- this is the ‘fight or flight’ response as our body prepares to handle an attack (stress). We clench our teeth, our blood pressure goes up, we are unable to sleep, cortisol increases, and we prepare to handle whatever comes our way. Unfortunately, when this happens day after day after day, the body burns out and starts to fall apart. By the time I meet up with this person, he or she is simply frazzled and feels like they have been hit by a train.
The mechanics of this stress is quite interesting. When you clench your teeth, the jawbone or condyle, gets ‘jammed’ high up into the jaw socket and pushes harder on the protective discs that cover the jaw bones. Then you end up with a slipped disc. We all know what a slipped disc in the lower back can do- leg pain, back pain, numbness. In the head, this pain can often be much worse. My new patients are reporting head and neck pain, arm and hand numbness, dizziness, tinnitus (ear ringing), and even various tics. These symptoms are extremely common with TMJ disorder, however, lately they seem to be on the increase.
So what do you do about it? With most of the people that I meet, they want to understand what is really going on and wish to deal with the problem. This is when I order an MRI of the TMJs to figure out if there is any displacement of the little disc in the joint. And in 95% of those cases, the discs are indeed out of place. So basically, what I tell them, is that the discs were probably out of place all this time and the stress kind of pushed them over the edge due to clenching on the joints and more pushing on the discs. For this problem, we have various paths of treatment if they wish to treat the problem. For those people who do not wish to identify or treat the source of the problem, what often can help is a nightly hot bath with Epsom salts and lavender to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system- i.e. the ‘calming’ nervous system. I personally do a bath like this every night after a long day of seeing patients and hunching over the computer. Another thing that helps a lot of people is to just get out there and walk- every day of the week! Get out in the fresh air and if you have sunshine, well, that’s even better. Sun will help produce Vitamin D on the skin and the Vitamin D will help you sleep better at nighttime. After all, Vit D is not really a vitamin, it is a sleep regulatory hormone. Who knew? Anyway, more on that in a later blog. Another thing that might help is massage therapy and even meditation.
An interesting observation is that the stress is actually helping people to identify an underlying issue that has probably been there for all these years and they really did not know it was there. Perhaps this is a good thing in a way- people are identifying a health problem, due to the reaction to stress, and are dealing with it now rather than waiting until later on when it is more difficult, not to mention more expensive, to treat. So listen to the signs- if your jaw pops and clicks, you have more head and neck pain, then perhaps it is time to figure out what is going on. As I tell all of our patients every day- listen to your body! It knows what is going on. Stay safe. Stay healthy.