A nation of teeth-grinders, jaw-clenchers: Pandemic’s impact on anxious Israelis

Survey finds 1 in 3 Israelis grind teeth and/or clench jaw during lockdown; among ‘middle generation’ women it’s 50; researchers see ‘very real physiological signs’ of distress

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A man clenching his jaw (Nomadsoul1 via iStock by Getty Images)
A man clenching his jaw (Nomadsoul1 via iStock by Getty Images)

Pandemic-induced stress is causing a huge rise in the anxious habits of teeth grinding and jaw clenching, Israeli researchers have found.

Tel Aviv University’s dental school surveyed a sample of the Israeli population during the spring lockdown and found that some 36 percent of respondents were grinding their teeth at night, compared to 10% before the pandemic.

A common daytime nervous habit, jaw-clenching also saw a major rise, from 17% in normal times to 32% during lockdown, according to the research just published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Clinical Medicine.

Both habits are known to be greatly impacted by emotional factors such as stress and anxiety, and have the potential to badly damage the teeth and jaw joints.

Symptoms of temporomandibular disorder (TMD), which is often related to the habits, were reported by 47% of respondents, up from 35% pre-pandemic. The disorders tend to cause chronic facial pain by affecting muscles, nerves and joints.

“We’ve talked a lot about the toll the pandemic is taking on people, and this is important research as it provides some very real physiological signs of the population being more depressed and more anxious,” Prof. Ilana Eli, one of the dentistry experts behind the research, told The Times of Israel.

A woman experiencing pain from grinding her teeth at night (Hope Connolly via iStock by Getty Images)

“We expected a rise in these statistics but we didn’t expect it to this magnitude. It’s really saddening.”

She said that one of the biggest sources of worry cited by the teeth-grinders and jaw-clenchers was the impact of the pandemic on their relationships with family and friends.

While the research focuses on Israel’s first lockdown, Eli believes that the increase in anxious habits has continued. She will soon have statistics from recent weeks.

Prof. Ilana Eli of Tel Aviv University’s dental school (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

The journal article concluded that the pandemic has “significant adverse effects” on the population’s “psycho-emotional status.”

The article covered the Israeli survey, which questioned 700 people, and a parallel survey in Poland. Eli’s team collaborated with researchers from the University of Wroclaw in Poland, who found an even bigger increase among Poles in teeth grinding, jaw clenching and chronic pain.

Surveys in both countries were anonymized and met the standards of the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki as well as local ethics committees.

According to Eli the research shines a spotlight on particularly high levels of stress and anxiety among women aged 35 to 55, who often deal with worries about the pandemic along with heavy pressures of work and parenting.

Half of all Israeli women in that age group reported grinding their teeth at night, 46% clenched their jaws in the daytime, and 48% suffered chronic facial pain due to TMD.

“We’re seeing a general picture of the pandemic taking a toll on people, and a particularly strong impact on women of the so-called middle generation, who carry the burden of taking care of their children and worrying about the grandparents,” said Eli.

A stressed mother during lockdown (Sam Thomas via iStock by Getty Images)

When Israeli respondents were asked about the source of their worries, some cited the general pressures of the pandemic, while a very common response was concern for the damage that the coronavirus crisis may wreak on human relationships.

“It was mostly anxiety regarding possible negative effects on relationships with other people as a result of lockdowns — worry about not being able to meet with friends and family,” said Eli. “The worry among Israelis was this sense that relationships will be impacted.”

People who find themselves grinding teeth or clenching their jaw should seek help from dentists, Eli stressed. “There are bite guard supports and relaxation techniques available,” she said, adding that in her opinion people shouldn’t stay away from dentists because of infection concerns. “There are very strict regulations about disinfection at dental clinics and one shouldn’t be concerned about going.”

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