Since the pandemic began, New York City dentist and prothodontist Tammy Chen has had a huge increase in patients with cracked teeth. “I’ve seen more tooth fractures in the last six weeks than in the previous six years,” she writes in a New York Times piece. It turns out that the stressful times we’re living in, combined with physical aspects of working from home, are a recipe for cracked teeth. Fortunately, there are few simple things you and your remote working employees can do to keep this from happening.
What’s the connection between the pandemic and tooth fractures? It’s a stressful time for everyone, including small business owners struggling to stay open, employees and former employees worried about making ends meet, and perhaps most of all, parents who have added home-schooling to their existing responsibilities. When you’re stressed, you’re much more likely to grind your teeth, clench your jaw, or both. Either activity vastly increases your risk of fracturing one or more teeth. “Teeth are naturally brittle, and everyone has tiny fissures in their teeth from chewing, grinding and everyday use,” Chen writes. “They can take only so much trauma before they eventually break.”
There’s particular danger if, like many people, you find you’re not sleeping as well as you did before the pandemic. Most jaw-clenching and tooth-grinding takes place at night and if you’re restless or suffering from insomnia, the chances that you’re doing either or both are higher.
All of that is bad enough, but working at home can make things much worse. That’s because so many of us work at dining tables, kitchen counters, on the sofa, or in bed — in other words in positions that cause us to hunch our shoulders forward, thus bending our spines. “If you’re wondering why a dentist cares about ergonomics, the simple truth is that nerves in your neck and shoulder muscles lead into the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, which connects the jawbone to the skull,” she explains. “Poor posture during the day can translate into a grinding problem at night.”
So what can you do to keep the pandemic from giving you broken teeth? Chen offers a lot of great advice here. These are a few of her most important tips.
1. During the day: Check if your teeth are touching.
Several times during the day, stop and ask yourself if your top and bottom teeth are touching. (Start right now if you like.) “If so, that’s a sure sign that you’re doing some damage,” Chen writes. In fact, your teeth shouldn’t touch at all during the day except while you’re chewing food. Your normal state should be a relaxed jaw with a little bit of space between your upper and lower teeth even when your lips are closed.
Also, if you haven’t done it already, this is your motivation to create an ergonomically healthy work space for yourself. You probably already know that you need a work-at-home setup that allows you to sit with your spine straight, knees and shoulders at 90-degree angles, and with your monitor at eye level so you’re not bending your neck to look down. You knew this could save you from backaches, neck aches, and stiff shoulders; now you know it can help you avoid painful and costly hours in the dentist’s chair as well.
2. After work: Loosen your spine.
Chen tells her patients to “wiggle like a fish,” she writes. In other words, “Lie down on the floor on your back, with your arms extended straight above your head, and gently wiggle your arms, shoulders, hips and feet from side to side. The goal is to decompress and elongate the spine, as well as release and relieve some of that tension and pressure.” A gentle yoga session is another good way to elongate and decompress your spine, and it can help with relaxation as well.
3. Before bed: Seek relaxation.
If you can, Chen advises a 20-minute bath with Epsom salts before bed. Ideally, she adds, don’t spend your pre-bed time checking emails or thinking about work. (I have also banned politics and the pandemic as bedtime conversation topics.)
You can increase your relaxation before sleep with some slow breathing exercises. Slowing your breath and making your exhale longer than your inhale acts directly on your vagus nerve and causes your heartbeat to slow. Once in bed, try 4-7-8 breathing which will not only help you relax, it may put you right to sleep.
A good night’s sleep in which you sleep through the night and wake fully refreshed is important for your physical, emotional, and brain health. And, thanks to Chen, we now know that it can save your teeth as well.
Beyond all this, she recommends getting a night guard, a device that you wear at night that keeps you from harming your teeth when you clench your jaw. And if it turns out you are clenching or grinding during the day, you can wear it then too. Since you’re working remotely, no one need ever know.
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