Lowcountry dentists notice uptick in oral health problems during pandemic

VIDEO: Local dentists notice uptick in oral health problems during pandemic

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Even if you have not gotten sick from the COVID-19 virus, the pandemic could still be harming your health through stress.

Stress can physically manifest in your head, mouth and neck, and cause tooth, jaw and muscle pain.

The American Association of Endodontists reported more than half of Americans put off regular dental check-ups because of the pandemic. 25% of people said they waited until later in the morning to brush their teeth, while 21% of people admitted they completely stopped brushing in the morning.

“There’s an increase is cracked teeth, chipped teeth as well as jaw joint issues during the pandemic. We’ve definitely seen that,” Dr. Douglas Alterman said.

Alterman is a faculty member with MUSC’s College of Dental Medicine in the Oral Rehabilitation Department.

“I think a lot of it is just a result of people just not getting into the dentist,” he said. “That routine of seeing the dentist every six months has been interrupted.”

Unfortunately, he said, dental concerns rarely get better if treatment is delayed.

“They get worse. They don’t magically fix themselves,” Alterman said.

Periodontist Dr. Edward Murphy has a practice in West Ashley and had to close down last March and April based on CDC guidelines to limit non-emergency procedures.

They reopened in May, and Murphy immediately noticed patients desperately needed treatment.

“I’ll be honest,” Murphy said. “I’m a dentist, and I was amazed at how some of the neglect on certain things that even we would say wasn’t an emergent thing would turn into a larger issue. A root canal that was put off that turned into a bigger situation because it wasn’t done during the pandemic. I was surprised. Truly.”

He said they’ve also seen an influx of patients talking about stress and having broken teeth and TMJ, plus seeing gum disease quickly spreading.

“Lots of things that we’ve always seen, but this practice has two doctors. We’ve both seen a pretty good uptick,” Murphy added.

More than 67% of South Carolinians have delayed routine dental check-ups, fearing the coronavirus, according to a survey by NextSmileDental.com.

The survey also showed three in five parents admit that their children are eating more sugary food and drinks over the course of the pandemic, which could lead to more cavities.

These experts say this year’s isolation, depression and stress can also make your oral health suffer.

“When we’re in distress, you get that clenching feeling you have when you’re upset or nervous. These muscles here in our jaw start to tighten and tense,” Alterman said. “You start to get popping and clicking noises in your jaw, pain in your jaws, frequent headaches that occur. It can even radiate into your neck and upper shoulder area.”

Clenching and grinding can quickly cause painful problems, too, they said.

“Most of us are guilty of clenching, I think we all feel we’re clenching maybe a little bit more this year,” Murphy said. “And as dentists, we’re seeing the repercussions of that.”

Mindfulness of your posture and oral positioning can help.

“There’s a mantra we like to tell our patients,” Alterman said. “That is, ‘Lips together, teeth apart.’”

Murphy learned the same.

“Your lips should always be together, and your teeth should always be apart,” he said. “It’s really true. The only time your teeth ever touch is when you’re chewing food- and even then there’s food between your teeth - and when you swallow. Your teeth come together really quickly so the food goes down the right hole.”

After that? He said your teeth should never really touch.

Pre-existing dental problems could make infections like the COVID-19 virus even worse.

“Populations disproportionately affected by coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are also at higher risk for oral diseases and experience oral health and oral health care disparities at higher rates,” the CDC reported.

These local dentists’ observations are part of a national trend, according to this survey by the American Dental Association.

“More than half of the polled dentists reported increases in the prevalence of bruxism (59.4%), chipped and cracked teeth (53.4%), and temporomandibular disorder symptoms (53.4%) among their patients,” it said.

Murphy and Alterman both advise Lowcountry patients to catch up on dental visits so providers can catch any problems early.

“With all the PPE changes we’ve made, coming to the dentist is quite safe. It’s probably one of the safest places you can be truthfully because of all the precautions being taken,” Alterman said.

The ADA reminds patients that at your regular exams, dentists are also checking for any early signs of cancer in your mouth and throat.

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