We experience stress all the time - and there are as many different ways in which we react as there are causes. Dental stress is one specific reaction which involves the teeth and jaws. This page explains signs of dental stress, what causes it, and what might be done about it.
Stress - and its relationship to physical ailments - has been noticed for long time. Though addressed throughout history, the concept as we know it today was developed by Dr Hans Selye in 1936. Dr Selye defined stress as the 'non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it'. It is now apparent that any change we experience causes stress. This can be either positive (promotion at work) or negative (loss of a job). Stress is basic to life. It cannot be avoided. Without any stress, life would be dull and colourless.
The Weak Link
Too much stress, however, is damaging. It affects us both emotionally and physically. Medically speaking, stress is the rate of wear and tear on the body. How our body reacts varies by individual. Usually excessive stress will cause our body to break down at its weakest point just as a chain breaks at its weakest link. For one person, this may be in the form of a stomach ache - for another, it may be a headache.
Signs of Dental Stress
People who experience dental stress have their 'weak link' in the jaws and teeth. Specific signs of dental stress include:
- grinding and clenching the teeth
- tired and sore jaw muscles
- cracked and chipped teeth, or broken fillings
- teeth which seem shortened or worn down
- clicking or popping of the jaw joints
- widening spaces between your front teeth
- unexplained movement or loosening of your teeth
- sensitivity of your teeth to hot and/or cold
Do we clench our teeth because we're nervous - or don we feel tense because our muscles are strained? It is a chicken and egg question. Most likely though, we suffer the effects of dental when the bite is not right.
A Vicious Circle
Muscles, like people, need to rest occasionally. When your bite is not right - as from teeth which are crowded, crooked, or worn down - the muscles never get to rest. Instead they must work extra hard to bring the upper and lower teeth together. Eventually they become tired and sore. When muscles suffer from too much stress, they become shortened and stiff. Soon they become painful. This begins a vicious cycle in which the pain makes you feel tense and uptight. This worsens the muscle spasm, which worsens the pain. It also worsens the bite. Strange as it may seem, apparently unrelated symptoms such as headaches or facial pain may result from this condition.
The Princess and Pea
It is important to remember that people react to stress differently. Some people are more sensitive to physical imperfections than others. The fable of the princess and the pea describes how the long-lost princess was identified among all the maidens in the kingdom. A pea was placed under a stack of mattresses. Only the princess was sensitive enough to feel the pea when she laid on top of the stack. Some people are more sensitive to small dental imperfections - such as a high filling. Others may never notice.
Paying attention to subtle signs of dental stress can prevent more full-blown problems later on. Although many of the signs mentioned are not painful, they do indicate that the it is not right.
Chopping down a tree takes many whacks with an axe. Eventually one chop will make the tree fall. Similarly, many stresses such as lifestyles, diet, or age, may chip away at your ability to tolerate dental imperfections. You may not notice until one day you wake up, for example, with a terrible headache. It may seem sudden - but the breakdown results from the combined effects of too much wear and tear.
Let Your Muscles Relax
What can be done about dental stress? If you experience any of the signs mentioned, discuss them with your dentist. Your dentist will adjust your bite so that the muscles can function without extra strain and tension. If you have clenched your teeth over a long period of time, this may be a habit. Relaxation training can teach you to change damaging dental habits. Biofeedback is a particular type of relaxation training in which you work with instruments which 'feedback' information to you about your muscles' activity. The instruments will show how effectively you are able to relax your muscles using certain techniques. In some cases, additional counseling is useful to help you identify the sources of stress in your life and how to change or manage them differently.
Remember - we cannot eliminate stress. We can however learn to deal with it so that it does not become damaging. Signs of dental stress creep up on us in subtle ways.