July 21, 2009 -- Recession stress is apparently taking a big toll on the nation's teeth. Medical experts say the number of people who grind their teeth in their sleep has risen sharply since the downturn began.
There's been a huge rise in teeth grinding, and stress is the top reason that people grind and crunch their teeth, according to Dr. Nancy Rosen, who appeared on "Good Morning America" today. With so many people losing their jobs and their savings in the stock market, people have started grinding and clenching non-stop, she said.
Rosen said almost 50 percent of her dental patients have complained more since the recession hit.
The stress-induced clinching can lead to worn down teeth, as it did for a 25-year-old named Sophie, who is not Rosen's patient.
"I grind my teeth at night because of stress," said Sophie, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy.
Dentists told ABCNews.com that they often see signs of bruxism, or teeth grinding, and treat the cracked teeth and jaw pain from people who clench their teeth too much.
Studies have found that between 5 percent and 12 percent of people suffer from facial pain, known as tempormandibular joint and muscle disorder, or TMJD, which is often caused by teeth grinding, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
Dr. Harold Menschel, whose Florida-based dental practice, called the TMJ & Facial Pain Institute, specializes in oral face pain, said that he's convinced that rising stress levels have increased the number of cracked teeth he mends.
"People today don't have cavities anymore, and we have gum disease under control," said Menschel. "People instead [are] losing their teeth by wearing them down and cracking their teeth. It's a huge problem."
Grinding Your Teeth Can Cause Earaches, Headaches and Jaw Pain
Rosen said most people are unaware that the earaches and headache pain they feel are related to grinding their teeth.
Those symptoms usually accompanied by an aching jaw muscle, Rosen said.
She said the jaw normally is sore and tender from all the clenching, causing some people to have extreme pain in the morning, and even have a hard time opening their mouths.
Tooth sensitivity is also something to watch out for, Rosen said, caused by the grinding of tooth on tooth.
The related muscles and joints in the face, said Menschel, are affected by the pressure produced by grinding teeth, often resulting in earaches and jaw pain.
"When you grind your teeth you're putting force on the system," said Menschel. "That can result in tooth pain and even headaches because they are all related to the nerve that governs the face."
At Dr. Kimberly Harms' private dental practice outside of Minneapolis, some of her baby boomer patients complain of symptoms that have resulted from a lifetime of grinding.
Stress, Harms said, is a "huge factor" of bruxism.
"From experience, when I had two teenage daughters at home I needed a high number of root canals," said Harms, who added that root canals are necessary when a cracked tooth -- in her case caused by grinding -- gets infected.
"Stress definitely causes bruxism to be more prominent," said Harms, who also acts as the American Dental Association's consumer adviser.
"I just had a patient who came in with a major crack say that she's been under a lot of stress," said Harms. "Patients recognize how stress causes them to grind."
And it's not just adults who are stressed enough to ruin their teeth, said Harms. Children, too, have been known to grind down their baby teeth.
"There is some thought that ear infections and colds can cause kids to grind their teeth," she said, as children may deal with the pain by clenching or grinding teeth.
To Cure Grinding, Dentists Suggest Relaxing
Rosen said that because stress causes most of all grinding, the only real way to cure it is to reduce the stress in your life. She suggests using exercise, meditation and therapy.
Other alternatives include mouth guards that are made to prevent night grinding.
"Night guards do protect the teeth and put the jaw in the good position while the person grinds," said The TMJ & Facial Pain Institute's Menschel, who also recommends relaxation therapy and even hypnosis.
The mouth guard doesn't cure the grinding, but it does protect teeth and helps relax jaw muscles, said Rosen. It retrains them to be more relaxed, and when you're grinding it's enamel on the guard -- not enamel on enamel.
Rosen suggests getting one custom made because it will work better.
If that's too expensive, then over-the-counter mouth guards are the best bet. They are designed so that you boil them at home and bite into them, customizing them yourself, she said.
Rosen said people who use that alternative should let their dentists check their mouth guards.
"I also tell people to avoid hard, crunchy foods -- and no gum. You want to give your jaw muscles a break. You can also use warm compresses long the jaw muscle, which can help alleviate inflammation."
Harms said that many dentists who can't get their patients to stop grinding and clenching will adjust the patients' bite to decrease the impact on their teeth.
"It's a very hard habit to break," said Harms.
Sophie says that her grinding problem has opened her eyes to how stressed she actually is and just how hard it is to stop.
"It's crazy to think that I'm that stressed," said Sophie. "I can't even control it -- especially if I'm doing it at night I'm doing damage to myself but I don't even realize it. It's frustrating."
LaRosa says her doctor's advice was nearly impossible to follow.
"He told me to avoid stress," she said, laughing.